Ashley McKenzie


Originally published on Ink 19 on May 2, 2023
Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso on April 17, 2023

Queens of the Qing Dynasty opens in a stark hospital room in Unama’ki Cape Breton with nurses moving decisively around Star (Sarah Walker) a young woman who has recently ingested poison and is urged to drink an unnamed antidote from a straw placed in a dark brown bottle. She looks around with wide, slightly glazed eyes that appear to be simultaneously absorbing all of the encircling stimuli while also peering beyond into an imperceivable, alternate world. As we watch Star watch everything moving around her in this clinical setting and then respond in unexpected ways, we are propelled into an empirical mindset that director Ashley McKenzie sets forth and nourishes throughout her latest film.

Soon after, Star meets An (Ziyin Zheng), a student from Shanghai and a hospital volunteer who has been charged with keeping her company and watching over her during her hospital stay. In their first encounter, the two conduct a variety of litmus tests of conversation and expression to understand each other. An pretends to be a housewife preparing dinner. Star pretends to be the husband, and she abruptly ends the kitchen fantasy by picking up the main ingredient, a zucchini still raw, and taking a bite out of it. The two proceed to a chapel in the hospital, and time slows down as they probe and discover each other’s beliefs and perspectives, bringing their distinctive energies in phase.

The duo continues to align as An shares their fascinations with the Qing Dynasty’s concubines and private aspirations, and Star shares her past traumas and keen reactions to An and her environment. And, when An gifts a phone to Star, their understanding of each other flourishes, and they communicate their observations, hopes, and desires openly across multiple forms — text, video, and voicemail in addition to in-person conversation — and grant us, the audience, the ability to take in both of their ways of being through their varying methods of external expression.

Furthermore, in between their interactions with one another, McKenzie presents An’s and Star’s individual interactions with others: An with their friends in a nail salon as they discuss the differences between China and Canada; Star in an inpatient psychiatric hospital; An with their lover. These separate conversations and experiences deepen our understanding of both An and Star — why they have an affinity for each other and what could potentially lead to distance between them — without any explanatory dialog or structure, reinforcing the methodology of the film where words and actions are not used to explain internal states, but rather as manifestations of the changes and persistence of truths in Star’s and An’s existences as they relate to each other and as they progress in their lives.

With Queens of the Qing Dynasty, McKenzie invites us to study An and Star as individuals and as close friends. As we sift through the artifacts and observations they provide us in their behaviors and communication, we arrive at portraits of two unique and vital people vibrating with honesty and clarity, emerging from their surroundings and our current time. We had the privilege of speaking with Ashley McKenzie about her approach to writing Star’s and An’s characters and worldviews, the role of Unama’ki Cape Breton in providing cultural and historical context, representations of mental illness in cinema, and themes such as the complex relationship between technology and society that are emerging in her work.

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LF: After watching Queens of the Qing Dynasty, we were thinking about Mark Rappaport’s film, From the Journals of Jean Seberg, specifically, the analysis of Robert Rossen’s Lilith from 1964 where Jean Seberg portrays an institutionalized woman with a caretaker played by Warren Beatty. In Rappaport’s analysis, he brings up how film has often connected women’s mental illness with sexuality, be it a source of madness or a form of madness in and of itself. You make it very clear through Star’s own admission that she’s asexual. We feel that this could possibly be a response to cinema’s recurring portrayal of women’s mental illness and its relation to sexuality. Can you discuss your decision-making process surrounding Star’s declaration of asexuality?

AM: Maybe I’ll start back at the early stages of developing this idea — at that time, I was thinking about the representation of mental illness, specifically in women, in art. I wasn’t really focusing specifically on sexuality then, but the story of Star sort of emerged as part of a portrait series that I was beginning to develop that was looking at women that society may view as having an affliction of some kind. I wanted to write portraits that showed that these so-called afflictions could actually be seen as advantageous qualities. This was a guiding conceptual idea in the early stages of writing, and eventually, in developing these portraits, Star’s character began to materialize more and more, and when An’s character was introduced into the script, it became so large that it grew into its own film.

As I developed the piece on its own, I had this feeling that Star’s character is a very queer one in every sense of the word. I genuinely feel that she defies all of the normative expectations that the world puts on her, so that was something that I realized about her at a certain point, but not until after I had kind of written her character. When I stepped back, I had this moment when I was reading queer theory and noticed that much of it was reflected in Star. So, I was aware that all of that was happening, but I still had not consciously decided to make Star an asexual character — that was something that arose organically or subconsciously in the writing, but I think it does feed into those bigger ideas in queer theory in many ways. Much of my writing comes together in an organic way, so it’s hard to know the exact origins of some of the ideas. But, in post and in releasing the film, that aspect of Star’s asexuality has become more apparent to me, and as I read Angela Chen’s book on asexuality, I realized that I too was on the asexual spectrum. A lot of the things that were in the film became clearer to me after I made it, and in the end, some of the elements in my film were very intentional and some were subconsciously implanted.

LF: That makes sense because one of the things that I love about your film is that it has its own energy, and that energy feels very now, and I think that nowness comes from these organic and structured portrait elements that combine together very nicely and feel incredibly present.

AM: It’s interesting because I watched a trailer for Lilith this morning because I have not seen the film, but it reminds me so much of Splendor in the Grass, which was a film I really loved when I was growing up along with many of the other films from the 1950s and 1960s about repressed sexuality such as Nicholas Ray’s films. These films really spoke to me, but when I was watching the trailer for Lilith, it felt so different than now in terms of the dramaturgy. The inner-turmoil of those characters is so wrought, and I didn’t want Star to feel that way. I didn’t want it to seem like she is tormented on the inside because, to me, she actually seems like she is very clear in her intentions and has a lot of self-knowledge and composure. I think that most of what is out of sync for her is the relation between herself and the pressures that structures and institutions are placing on her. That is where I see the tension existing, and it feels even clearer this morning after watching the Lilith trailer and noticing how much of that film’s energy comes from angst.

GF: While your film is undoubtedly a contemporary one, it also has its own independent sense of time, but its title and An’s fascination with concubines is anchored in a very specific period of Chinese history. Did the fact that the Qing dynasty was the last imperial dynasty of China influence the film in any way?

AM: I think that the biggest influence was Empress Dowager Cixi, and it is more so her in that time period rather than any historical features of the Qing dynasty itself that left a big mark on the film, particularly on An’s character. She is this icon and symbolic figure. There is this matrix of other icons in the film like Marilyn Monroe, but for An, Empress Dowager represents someone who can find their self-power in a system that is not built for them to necessarily access power, and she’s able to do so without sacrificing her femininity. And perhaps, if you get into the history of it, that is not entirely true of her character, but just the idea of concubines that are able to end up in this position of power, or as An says in the film, “being able to expand your empire while keeping your nails long,” represents the possibility of strategizing how to attain some self-power without having to compromise femininity. This speaks to them a lot and Ziyin Zheng, who plays the role of An and who helped develop the character as a script consultant. For Ziyin, growing up watching television melodramas and soap operas about the Royal Palace and concubines was something very meaningful to their development and worldview and shaped the women whom they looked up to. So, An’s fascination with the concubines was coming from a very personal place for them.

I like the idea of how that could become a guiding star for each character and how they are able to see the world differently by looking at these Empresses at that time. I think the other distinctive thing about Empress Dowager Cixi — and maybe this does speak to the Qing Dynasty being the last imperial dynasty — is that she did break tradition a bit. She had a more open relationship with Western culture. She was the first member of royalty to have her portrait done, and she had an American painter [Katharine A. Carl] do her portrait. She also had connections to Theodore Roosevelt, so upon reflection, you can see how all of these details about her connection between East and West would make sense for An’s character and their own journey and the things that they are trying to seek in life.

LF: I did read a bit about how the Qing Dynasty was notably an era of change. The concubine system was simplified. There was unprecedented connectivity between East and West. And, eventually, at the Dynasty’s end, the Republic of China emerged. It does feel like the historic changes of the period inspire An’s character in a subconscious way, and perhaps are in the undercurrents of when Star and An first meet and go to a chapel in the hospital?

In that space, they explore conceptions of each other through ideas of good and evil. Star asserts that she thought An was evil. An sings of angels. And, the image of Christ watches them as they learn about each other. It’s a striking scene because we have the opportunity to see both characters trying to understand each other’s motivations and codes of ethics in a space dedicated to Christian faith, which has its own independent system of action, motivation, and judgment. Could you talk about how this chapel scene was conceived?

AM: More broadly, the chapel scene — before I get into the Christian worldview aspect of it — is, to me, a pivotal moment for the two characters where they are trying to understand how the other person communicates, learns, or expresses themselves, and that takes a bit of trial and error. It’s like rehearsing — seeing do you respond to this or that? I find it so interesting to see them engage in that way and then arrive at an effective model of care. Throughout the film, you watch Star engage with more institutionalized care, and that usually doesn’t arrive at anything effective, but that little bit of extra time and experimentation that it takes to try to meaningfully forge a connection with someone and achieve some attunement was what that chapel scene was all about. To me, that is where the essence of where care or connection can begin, so the chapel scene is part of an experimental process where I could allow them the space to explore each other’s responses back and forth.

Then, in terms of Christianity, I was coming at it from this place where Star has this very particular worldview, and An is able to recognize that and tries to understand it from their own perspective by bringing Celine Dion into the mix as their own sense of worship, which is directed more towards a diva or an empress or a concubine. I was trying to play with those two contrasting perspectives a bit, while also somewhat blowing up Christianity’s influences on both. The way that we conceptualize Star’s backstory is that she did have a Christian worldview that was imposed on her at home with her foster parent, and as thus, she has learned to process things through that narrative, but you can see how it breaks down in the scene. She knows that she does not really fit into this Christian framework, and as she processes An and other stimuli in her environment, she notices they also don’t fit into any part of it either, so the scene is also trying to chip into that structure and expose the flaws in it. Furthermore, at a certain point in the edit, I was thinking about conversion therapy and homophobia, and I thought that this film needs to do the opposite and try and workout and purge internalized homophobia and work towards a queering of everything, relationships and orientations, and converting in a reversed way.

LF: That idea of Christianity’s role as point of departure then re-envisioning is interesting. It makes me think back to Star’s bedroom in the inpatient hospital and the cross that is painted over with wall paint, but is still very much present over her bed.

AM: All of the small town hospitals are kind of like that here. Most of the small towns are Catholic, so when all of these buildings were constructed, it was during a time when religion was very entrenched in all aspects of life, and there hasn’t been a redesign since then. These buildings are generally just running their course, but there are still these remnants of that past era.

GF: The chapel scene does an excellent job in establishing that Star and An both have their own logic that the people, communities, and structures around them don’t understand. And yet, they understand each other, and we as the audience understand them too. Simultaneously, through the interactions that Star and An each have with others, we also come to understand the logic systems outside of theirs (Star’s social worker, An’s friends, An’s lover, Star’s guardian), and all of these different logics cohabitate in the space of Queens without any one becoming too dominant in influencing how we as the audience should interpret the film. How did you approach balancing all of these different ways of operating?

AM: A big part of my filmmaking process is tied to how much I am influenced by the people around me, so there is a lot of real life that makes its way into my films. I can often think back to a person or two or three that I may have in mind at some point when I am developing a character. I think that there is something about having a real life connection to draw on that hopefully pushes me to want to achieve a humanizing portrait. In a broad way, my approach to films is so linked to real life that I want to empathize and understand all of the characters and do them justice in their portrayals. How I try balancing all of that is by putting care and understanding into all stages of the process: from writing to shooting to editing and then getting lots of feedback and taking a long time to do everything and overthinking everything and getting perspectives that are different from my own and trying to be very critical about all of it myself while also knowing that nothing that I have just taken in will give me a very clear answer [laughs] and yet still going down that road of wanting to understand it all in order to represent something that feels honest in the end.

With Queens, I had a clear intention to build a deeper characterization in the writing stage. I very much wanted to focus on dimensionality with everyone, but specifically Star and An. It was my mission to develop those two characters and construct portraits and sculpt them in a way that they are complex and nuanced, so they have different sides, and you cannot easily pin them down.

Sometimes, I felt that in my past work, and in many films that I really love, that there is a certain pure, minimalist, distilled style that emerges in independent/arthouse films where the characters can become a bit elusive, and they don’t say much. In doing so, they can feel as though they are more sophisticated because they are giving you so little, and they are so mysterious, but I felt that I didn’t want to hide behind that convention. In previous interviews, I discussed this idea of an ellipsis. There is an author who brought up that the word “ellipsis” means something that hides behind silence, and I was feeling that in Werewolf and my past films that I was using ellipses in a way that, in developing this film, for me to use an ellipsis in certain scenes and moments felt like I was trying to hide behind something. So, I wanted to give these characters more space to say things and listen to what they say and try to respond to what they are giving me.

I was taking a risk in that things could have gotten messy, and they might have felt uncomfortable, and maybe things from a dramaturgy perspective were going to become awkward, but I believed that I needed to take that risk to arrive at something more honest and richer altogether.

LF: Those risks paid off well. Star and An are such singular characters who feel real because of how they express the complexity and conflicts in themselves and their situations. This is particularly clear when we hear about An’s reflections on Canadian society. We often understand a society by its treatment of its most vulnerable. Though the society in Unama’ki Cape Breton isn’t able to help Star get to a place where she can be independent, it is at least able to provide resources to her to keep her somewhat afloat. In the scene in the nail salon, An says that the Canadian government is “too generous,” and this is a prickly statement because this sentiment could form a stark division between them, as someone trying to leave an oppressive and desperate situation in China to become a new Canadian, and Star as someone who was born and raised in Canada. This assertion about the generosity of the Canadian government doesn’t prevent An from getting closer to Star, but this also is not an idea that they express to her, despite their openness with each other. How much of An’s (and also Ziyin Zheng’s) assessments of Canadian society, good and bad, as an immigrant do you feel plays a role in how An perceives Star?

AM: Because the film plays out in a condensed time period, I don’t think that it reaches that point in Star and An’s relationship where they may have to face more of the prickly realities that you are bringing up. I think the biggest difference that they would have to reckon with is the class separation between them. In some ways, it creates a magnetism between them, but I also think that it could bring about a certain degree of judgment. I do feel that, in the latter half of the film, there is a boundary that emerges as An gains more insight into what Star’s life is shaping up to become and recognizes that they have different visions for themselves.

What An first perceives in Star and is attracted to is her apparent freedom, which comes from her severe marginalization in society where she has been deemed as useless in a capitalist structure, which in turn positions her in this place where she has nothing to lose because she is seen as having nothing of value to contribute. Because An sees Star taking risks, they are attracted to that because they are afraid of taking certain risks as they are an economic immigrant coming from an oppressive place in many ways and seeking paths to better wellness, spiritually and in their mind and body, while also looking for a culture that is more affirming to them. As an economic immigrant, An has to be more careful about what they do because they could very easily be sent out of the country and not secure their residency. In addition, as an economic immigrant, they have connections to a family that may be supporting them financially, and they don’t want to do anything that could jeopardize those ties either.

That class difference between the two of them is the crux of what I believe is feeding into how An perceives Star. They really want to spend time with her. They really love how she can be free, but that gets tempered by class realities. Perhaps they can come to a more nuanced place and probably will by their experiences knowing Star, but I don’t think that they’re ready to sacrifice their position in society to couple in any kind of normative way.

GF: As we close our conversation, we want to discuss the distinctive roles that technology and mechanization play in your debut feature, Werewolf, and in Queens of the Qing Dynasty. In Werewolf, there are two distinctive machines that come to mind: the methadone distribution machine and the ice cream machine. We oddly recalled both during the scene in which Star is given an exercise to evaluate if she is fit to live in a group home and has to use a diagnostic tool that abstractly sets the boundaries of monitoring a stove, but is devoid of any explicit connection to a specific task in a realistic setting.

Altogether, these devices raised to us a theme in your films where technology and machinery accomplish tasks that easily can be handled by humans, but for a variety of reasons cannot or do not anymore. In Queens, this is most apparent in the phone An gifts to Star. The duo should be able to open a channel of communication without the phone, but it galvanizes the creation of the lifeline between them. This is an intriguing, nuanced perspective on technology, society, and humanity. Is this perspective something that you’re mindful of when you’re making your films? How does Unama’ki Cape Breton as your home and your setting influence this?

AM: This question gets into some things that I do see arising in my films, and I feel that I am exploring and using film techniques to try to work out this perspective. I believe that it is fundamentally important to contextualize these ideas in this place. For any symbol or motif, I like the idea that things don’t have to have a dominant meaning or that their meaning could shift based on context. This is something that often comes up in my work because I’m making films in an environment that is very specific to an island, and consequently, everything becomes so shaped by the place in a more pronounced way. So, when I think about using technology or different visual motifs in my films, I try to cast objects in a similar way that I cast performers and scout locations. Objects can be this other vehicle of expression, but, within the particular context of my daily life and the worlds being built in my films, an object’s certain symbolic meaning can shift.

Therefore, when I think about the phone in Queens and how An and Star could open up a channel of communication without the phone, I believe that’s true to some degree. But, in this context of being on an island where geography can be a quite a large barrier for some people if they don’t have access to transportation, having alternative modes of communication can be a critical lifeline, and that was something that fueled the writing of this film based on my personal experiences of how a phone could make a huge difference in people’s lives when they are many layers removed from physical connections. I also think that it’s interesting that people can reveal themselves and express themselves in different ways depending on what mode of communication they are using.

Also, I’m a big Jacques Tati fan, and he comes to mind when I think about technology and machinery. The portraits that he did about living in a mechanized society remind me that it is always more than just good or bad. I so greatly admire the way he approaches these issues complexly and comedically. That was always something that was going through my head as I was making Queens.

Another reference point that is admittedly not a unique correlation is field transference, which is a concept I’ve always loved. You know how in François Truffaut’s book on Hitchcock he describes how objects are exchanged as guilt transference in Hitchcock’s films? And, you see how Claude Chabrol does guilt transference with objects in his work as well? This is an idea that I have internalized, so, for me, if a character is going to exchange an object, they are going to be transferring more than just the object itself because they’ll subliminally package some other things into the mix. That said, the phone doesn’t quite operate as a guilt transference in this context, but I do think there is something more than what is on the surface because of that notion.

Queens of the Qing Dynasty opens at the Metrograph in New York City Friday, May 5, 2023.

Featured photo of Ashley McKenzie by Calvin Thomas.

Queens of the Qing Dynasty

Human Flowers of Flesh


Originally published on Ink 19 on April 13, 2023

Human Flowers of Flesh
directed by Helena Wittmann

We understand and appreciate the allure of the French Foreign Legion, which beguiles Ida (Angeliki Papoulia of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Alps fame), the protagonist in Human Flowers of Flesh, Helena Wittmann’s followup to her esteemed 2017 debut feature, Drift. At some point in our lives, quite often when we were young, many of us have encountered one of the cinematic adaptations of P. C. Wren’s novel, Beau Geste, the harrowing story of three orphaned upper class English brothers who independently join the Legion.

For us, it was William A. Wellman’s 1939 treatment of Beau Geste, which starred Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston, that propelled our curiosity towards this legendary corp of the French Army, one that possesses the rare and magical combination of elite skill, international membership, and the ability to dissolve all records of one’s given name and potentially felonious past upon entering its ranks. Regardless of the film’s tragic end, the initial thought that such men of means would readily surrender the life of comfort that they have always known for service to a foreign flag in a desperate outpost added to our fascination.

For Human Flowers’ Ida, the common presence of the Legionnaires in Marseille ignites her interest in the mystique of the Legion. The members sing heartily in the distance, broadcasting their purpose and origin to all nearby, and the stories of their legendary organization flow in and out of the conversations of the port city. Intrigued by these enigmatic men, Ida charts an exploratory course in the Mediterranean in pursuit of the spirit, myth, and legacy of the Legion. She helms her ship for the journey and leads an all-male crew consisting of Mauro (Mauro Soares), Farouk (Ferhat Mouhali), Carlos (Gustavo Jahn), and Vladimir (Vladimir Vulevic), who, like Legionnaires themselves, all hail from different countries but are united in a mission. They sail from the contemporary headquarters of the Legion in Marseille via Corsica to the corp’s original headquarters in the Algerian town of Sidi Bel Abbès, where the Geste brothers of Wren’s novel trained, before two of the brothers are dispatched to the fort that would be the site of their end.

The notions that may have split our foreign crew — including any hesitation to follow a female commander — dissipate into the flow of the landscapes around them as they pursue the lore and truths of the Legion, despite the fact that they appear to be traveling aimlessly in a leisurely fashion. As our collection of voyagers symbolically navigates the destinations that once saw a powerful presence of the Legion fervently defending the colonial outreaches of France, we see on the boat a melding of the physical and metaphysical that not only mirrors the breakdown of cultures that occurs through the militaristic fraternity in the Legion, but also the dissolution of all human tensions and constructs by the prehistoric and magnificent sea.

All items on the boat and those brought in from ashore experience the breakdown and transformation of physical objects by human manipulation or interpretation, from the microscopic research of marine life to the subsequent transformation of surroundings into words, epitomized by the hand-processed cyanotype images of the crew reaching a night’s close in the ship’s cabin. When Wittmann, who served not only as the director but also as the cinematographer of Human Flowers of Flesh, takes us into the depths of the Mediterranean to observe the living things flourishing within and around the wreckage of a plane, we better understand its everlasting, simultaneous power to destroy and sustain life while also preserving moments across all time in its waters.

Surrounded by the fundamental nature of the sea, the languages spoken by our sailors detach from their original structures and interweave into each other and into an unspoken, basic language we can sense but not hear. To this end, Wittmann occasionally avoids translating the languages used by our sailors, but this never hinders their communication with each other or us. In fact, in the loss of their semantic purpose, the untranslated words become a part of the sonic texture of the ship and sea that Wittmann and her composer/sound designer Nika Son invite us to absorb. As a result, the people on board and the environment around them come together into a fluid experience that merges the motion of the excursion with ideas that seem to be coming from Ida’s mind alongside the unseen but sensible histories of the sea and the nearby lands.

When we finally reach Sidi Bel Abbès, the destination of the crew’s journey, we see the familiar face of Denis Lavant reprising his role as the Legionnaire Galoup from Beau Travail, Claire Denis’ masterful 1999 adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd, a novella that perfectly captures the dysfunctional family dynamic transplanted into the form of sailors at sea. In these final moments of Human Flowers of the Flesh, a symbiotic coupling of two characters, Ida and Galoup, who keep their verbal interactions to a minimum, but in their respective presences in the shared space of Galoup’s apartment, evoke a filmic Legionnaire inspiration for Wittmann that prompted her to seek the the history of colonial expansion and the search for adventure, new beginnings, and brotherhood behind the intrigue of the Legion and find the primordial, transformative, and hypnotic forces of the sea and its ability to render us down to our most elemental selves.

Human Flowers of Flesh opens at The Metrograph in NYC this Friday, April 14, 2023.

Featured photo courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Human Flowers of Flesh

Generoso and Lily Fierro

Eight Deadly Shots


Originally published on Ink 19 on March 28, 2023

Eight Deadly Shots
directed by Mikko Niskanen

There is a societal reset button that all of us hope to hit when we take a plunge into an idyllic natural setting. Most of us see in nature the belief in a force that should allow us to live our lives in a basic and sensible way free of unforeseen impediments commonly found in densely populated areas, but when we ascribe to affix a human order to the pastoral by compromising it in favor of society and with it, government, our ability to manage our existence becomes a constantly evolving and more complicated mission.

Beginning each episode of Mikko Niskanen’s recently restored 1972 mini-series, Eight Deadly Shots (Kahdeksan surmanluotia), which opens its run at the Film Forum in NYC on Friday, March 31, is an onscreen pull quote that is uttered by Vaimo (Tarja-Tuulikki Tarsala), the wife of our central character Pasi (Mikko Niskanen): “Booze Was the Root of All Evil in Our Family,” but through Niskanen’s interpretation of tragic real life events, we will come to view Pasi’s relationship with alcohol as a series of complicated acts of survival, bold defiance, frustration, and addiction that he exhibits while trying to make a life for his family in their failing farming community.

Niskanen based his exceptionally powerful and engrossing piece on the life of Tauno Pasanen, a struggling farmer and father of four who, on March 7, 1969, shot and killed four police officers responding to a domestic disturbance at Pasanen’s home in the Finnish rural town of Sääksmäki. In Eight Deadly Shots, Niskanen depicts aspects of Pasanen’s life through the aforementioned Pasi, and as the film begins, we bear witness to images of a sullen and incarcerated Pasi interspliced with footage of the burial of the four slain officers.

The four episodes that follow these opening moments provide a complicated look at Pasi’s life just before the killings, but as Niskanen also promises us at the beginning of each episode: “This film does not claim to reproduce a real event, even though the story is based on one in some important respects. Everyone may have his own truth, but this is the truth I saw and experienced, having been born into these surroundings, having lived this particular life, and having studied these matters.” With this disclaimer in mind, we are indeed presented with a work that achieves volumes beyond the simple retelling of a criminal act into a statement that ties a personal struggle to an overall societal flaw.

The small local government’s systematic inability to grasp Pasi and his family’s plight and its indifference to the broad, desperate circumstances of the time and place is repeatedly demonstrated through Niskanen’s point of view and earnest portrayal of Pasi himself. Like the majority of families in their community, Pasi and his family try to make a living by meager farming in an unfavorable environment that does not generate enough yield to survive in a country that may still be reeling from the aftershock economic effects of reparations owed for its battles against the Soviet Union during World War II. In response to their plight, Pasi and his best friend and neighbor Reiska (Paavo Pentikäinen) turn to manipulating the natural elements around them by producing alcohol as a lucrative and highly illegal way to make ends meet as Pasi’s farm continues to struggle, unable to produce anything natural that could come close to covering his family’s expenses, let alone the high taxes from which they receive little benefit. However, Pasi’s occupation as a bootlegger and his inability to maintain sobriety greatly annoy Vaimo. She worries not only about the scorn her family will suffer because of her husband’s illicit business venture, but also about Pasi’s potentially dangerous outbursts when he returns home in various obtuse states of intoxication.

Eventually, one of Pasi’s drunken outbursts causes his family to flee their home and lands him in a rough night in jail. Afterwards, the local police keep a closer eye on him, looking to book him again for any sign of public drunkenness, or better yet, find hard evidence of his bootlegging. In addition, his family’s respect for him diminishes severely, as seen particularly in a moment when his eldest son even adds a false accusation of “whoring” to his father’s list of bad habits despite the fact that he has never spent a second with another woman. Thus, with his reputation tarnished at home and without any legitimate sources of income, Pasi works menial labor jobs, including ditch-digging for the installation of sewage lines and cutting down trees for firewood and hauling them through the snow on a sled pulled by his beloved horse Liisa. Despite his commitment to complete the work he’s able to find, it only lasts for short periods of time and pays poorly. So, as the expenses mount, Pasi is once more forced to turn to bootlegging for money, which further infuriates his wife and invites ire from the town’s leaders as well as legal harassment. Finally, after numerous failed attempts to subsist, the family is hit with an unaffordable tax bill. Vaimo errantly advises Pasi to speak with the town’s tax council in an effort to lower the total, but because of his reputation, Pasi is informed that no change will be made to the total, furthering his feelings of alienation, hopelessness, and complete disenfranchisement.

Given that he presents the audience with the outcome of the story at the beginning, Niskanen sensibly removes the suspense in the sequence of events in Pasi’s life and, in turn, builds a thorough and precise sociological case study, but that does not mean that the final movie is devoid of empathy or moving scenes in any way. In fact, Niskanen’s multi-layered portrayal of Pasi forms a profound depiction of a flawed man with a tremendous capacity for hard work and a great desire to support his family who is also constrained by his own vices and the contemporary forces and mores around him, leading to a wide range of behaviors that, at times, are simultaneously fatherly, diligent, beleaguered, and self-destructive. We are then left with a clear impression of a man who attempted to fit in with his surroundings and a society around him that actively participated in bringing out the darkest aspects of himself as the inevitable conclusion plays out in front of us.

Restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Yleisradio Oy, Fiction Finland ry, and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, Eight Deadly Shots remains as an eerily prescient document of how our constant inability to work together to create a mutually satisfactory governmental system for everybody to thrive in the environment around us can grind down an individual and lead to a cataclysmic event.

Eight Deadly Shots opens on Friday, March 31, 2023, at the Film Forum in NYC.

Featured image courtesy of Janus Films.

Janus Films

Generoso and Lily Fierro

Smoking Causes Coughing


Originally published on Ink 19 on March 27, 2023

Smoking Causes Coughing
directed by Quentin Dupieux

This past year saw two exceptional comedic features directed by the absurdist talents of French auteur Quentin Dupieux. The first of the two Dupieux films was perhaps the director’s most lovely, yet no less surrealistic effort of his career, Incredible But True. In that film, Dupieux cast the star of so many of his previous efforts, Alain Chabat, as a middle-aged man (also named Alain) who strives to own a country home where he and his wife Marie can spend the latter part of their lives together. A modest goal indeed, but as expected in a Dupieux film, Alain and Marie’s newly purchased home also possesses a time-shifting basement portal that allows its subjects to travel forward in time by a half-day, while reversing their age by three days in the process.

This otherwise miraculous facet of what should be a quaint retirement chalet for this aging pair carries little interest for Alain, for he is comfortable in his own skin and only longs for a good day of fishing by the creek and evenings dining and chatting with his wife. Unfortunately, the appeal of regained youth fervently compels Marie to plunge herself through the magical gate again and again, leaving Alain as the concerned and bewildered husband of a woman who is vainly and haphazardly hurling herself back towards her teenage years as she tries to avoid her own mortality.

With Smoking Causes Coughing, Chabat is again placed as the grounded center of a Dupieux film where he portrays a character who is comfortable in his own skin, but, this time, that skin is the gray pelt of a hedonistic, woman-chasing, and green slime drooling rat named Didier who doles out the assignments to the Tobacco Force, a squad of superhero-clad kaiju fighters knighted with the names and powers of the most deadly of ingredients found in an average lung rocket: Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), and Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier).

When we are first exposed to the Tobacco Force, the team is in action, laying waste to a human-sized Gamera clone called the Tortusse with streams of their powerful cancer-causing agents dispensed Ultraman-style to our nuclear reptile. After an absurd battle, the deluge of carcinogens takes its toll on the monster, who in turn bathes our heroes in its viscera. Now, with evil foiled, a vacationing family that has witnessed the carnage from afar requests a cheery photo with our wholesome combatants, who gleefully oblige before heading off to interface with Chief Didier to receive their next assignment: a much-needed team retreat to a cabin in the woods, but with the archetypal cabin here replaced by a sterile, modernist fortress/bunker instead.

As in Incredible But True, natural surroundings provide the launching pad from where our protagonists can access their true selves in Smoking Causes Coughing. On the first night of their retreat, our squeaky clean quintet partakes in the camping tradition of telling scary stories by the fire and, in doing so, have a chance to indulge in the contemporary need for real-life violence (albeit, here, abundantly surrealistic) as a form of entertainment. This familiar setting breaks down the facade of the team and reveals who they are to each other and themselves beyond the confines of their ’60s-kaiju-battle-inspired uniforms.

After coaxing the other members of the Tobacco Force to allow him to take the campfire stage, Benzene tells the first of the comically horrific stories in Smoking Causes Coughing. He regales his teammates with the tale of an innocuous couples weekend that takes a bloody turn when a vintage “thinking” helmet is found that allows its wearer to finally have lucid thoughts — ones that allow the wearer to see her husband and friends as the pointless bores they really are, and thus, unworthy of another breath. Next, a freshly caught barracuda, in the midst of being grilled, shares the story of a wood chipper accident where the victim, who is reduced to just a pair of talking lips floating in a gelatinous pool of his remaining fluids and flesh, is fairly unbothered by his newly transformed state.

As each story plays out, we see through the response from the Tobacco Force that the apathy towards the extremes that encompass the world of the film’s era — one which by all accounts could be set somewhere between the ’60s and today — is clearly entrenched in our psyche. In fact, our numbness to everything here on Earth is further underscored when a somewhat domesticated Ming the Merciless figure named Lézardin, Emperor of Evil (Benoît Poelvoorde, from Dupieux’s 2019 film, Keep an Eye Out), seeks to destroy our planet because it’s not that appealing anymore, and the mighty Tobacco Force can do little to stop their galactic foe.

Through the execution of this fantastical setup, Dupieux has again creatively and entertainingly reduced our day-to-day existence to what it has become for most: an endless buffet of pointless narratives and vices that distract us from the inevitable forces of our reality. So whether you’re the Tobacco Force fighting ambiguously evil monsters or the rat form of Alain Chabat in Smoking Causes Coughing, who needs a constant flux of libidinous escapades as a form of affirmation, or even the loving husband form of Alain Chabat in Incredible But True, who is satisfied with enjoying the small moments of life, at least you’re doing something, as opposed to most of us, who have grown accustomed to sitting in our boxes and simply watching while we wait for some proverbial end.

Feature photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing

Lily and Generoso Fierro



Originally published on Ink 19 on December 22, 2022

The Conformist
directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Though Bernardo Bertolucci was only 27 years old when he, along with Dario Argento and Sergio Leone, co-wrote the story for Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il West) in 1968, by that time, Bertolucci had already amassed a decade of experience in filmmaking. Beginning his career as a teen as an assistant director to Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bertolucci was only 22 years old when he directed his first feature, La commare secca, a brutal murder mystery based on a short story by Pasolini. Subsequently, Bertolucci would write and direct Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione) and Partner while working on the story for Once Upon a Time in the West, a film that, in many ways, was the model perfect storm for what he would create two years later with The Conformist.

Leone’s epic western was a remarkable blending of both young and veteran talents into an urgent and timeless entry into the genre. Shot by the masterful eye of Tonino Delli Colli, who would go on to lens multiple films for Pasolini including Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) and The DecameronOnce Upon a Time in the West starred the legendary Hollywood actor Henry Fonda playing against type as a villainous mercenary named Frank, the well-established tough guy Charles Bronson as the mysterious and taciturn Harmonica, and the prolific actress Claudia Cardinale, who was twenty years Fonda’s junior, as Jill McBain. This eclectic combination of gifted artists, which again included story co-author Dario Argento, who was still two years away from directing his impressive first feature, the giallo Bird With a Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo), would add all of the right elements to make Leone’s film the classic that it is now considered.

One would assume that Bertolucci’s experience with the ambitious production of Once Upon a Time in the West helped inform many of his choices when he was creating his 1970 masterpiece, The Conformist, which has recently undergone a superb 4K restoration under the supervision of Fondazione Bernardo Bertolucci before heading back to theaters at the beginning of 2023.

At the center of The Conformist, Bertolucci selected the seasoned Jean-Louis Trintignant, who just a few years earlier had risen to international stardom on the strength of his performances in Claude Lelouch’s romantic drama, A Man and a Woman (Un homme et une femme), and Costa-Gavras’s political thriller, Z. For the role of Giulia, the wife of Trintignant’s antagonist/protagonist Marcello Clerici, Bertolucci cast twenty-three year old actress Stefania Sandrelli, who had starred in his earlier film Partner, three very successful comedies for Pietro Germi, and Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well (Io la conoscevo bene). Behind the camera for The Conformist was a then virtually unknown cinematographer named Vittorio Storaro, who would develop into one of the most celebrated visual artists in cinema history as he went on to shoot Apocalypse NowReds, and many of Bertolucci’s later films, including Last Tango in Paris1900, and The Last Emperor. And to complete this phenomenal outfit, the film-scoring titan Georges Delerue, who was nearly two decades into his career in cinema and had already created music for the films of Jean Luc-Godard, Alain Resnais, and François Truffaut, composed and conducted the music for The Conformist. Bertolucci harnessed the distinctive talents of the ensemble he put together for all of the elements of The Conformist, and in turn formed a work of cinematic perfection that foreshadows why any concrete definition of societal normalcy continues to elude us today.

In his adaptation of the novel of the same name by Alberto Morovia, Bertolucci blended most of the book’s prologue, which concentrates on the problematic youth of Marcello Clerici, into a few flashbacks inserted within the first third of the film, where we primarily see an adult Marcello who has joined the rising National Fascist Party in Italy as a means of absolution for his youthful transgressions and shame for his dysfunctional, disgraced aristocratic family that have left him with an overwhelming desire to become a normal member of society. To further his efforts of assimilation, Marcello has also become engaged to a seemingly thoughtless bourgeois young woman named Giulia, whom we first see in a striped Armani dress that Storaro blends with the daytime lights emanating between the slats of her living room shades that render her as trivial as wallpaper.

As a framing device for the narrative, we intermittently ride along with Marcello as he struggles with his newfound ethos while driving on snowy roads with his brutish colleague, Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), to consummate his first assignment for the Party — an assignment that originally began as a intelligence mission where Marcello would attempt to be accepted into the academic/political circle of his old professor, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who has gone into exile in Paris as an anti-fascist political dissident, but has now turned into a plot to assassinate his former mentor. In order to get closer to Quadri, Marcello uses his honeymoon with Giulia in Paris as an excuse to reacquaint himself with the professor from the glory days of his classical education. Complicating matters for Marcello, however, is his sudden infatuation with Quadri’s wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda), who makes separate attempts to seduce both Marcello and Giulia. Though he is steadfast in his duty for most of the film, Marcello’s experiences with the sexually adventurous Anna create a conundrum within Marcello that forces him to confront issues of his own repressed sexuality that have led him onto the troubled course that he set for himself and can no longer escape without severe repercussions.

Through Storaro’s eye, which incorporates an aggressive use of depths, bizarre shooting angles, and deep, rich colors that build a dreamlike atmosphere, we are constantly pulled away from anything that could be viewed as a traditional character study in The Conformist and into an overarching examination of normalcy as it relates to class imperatives. The ethereal elements of Bertolucci’s film, such as the visual aesthetics and purposefully erratic performances, help strip away a layer of our emotional connection to the characters’ plights to elucidate how socio-economic status primes each character’s level of acceptance of the dysfunction around them. Though both Marcello and Giulia desire some degree of normalcy, the two have radically different understandings of it based on their class, and this is notably visible in how they handle their individual childhood traumas. Giulia grew up as a woman in a sheltered upper middle-class environment during the early 20th Century, so she has little power to enact change, and therefore, she passively accepts the abuse committed against her by a family friend, whereas Marcello, who grew up in an affluent home, possesses the privilege and connections to become an agent of societal action in order to obscure and rewrite his memory of molestation and his personal history of familial instability.

As chilling as it is psychologically complex, after more than 50 years since its release, The Conformist remains as one of the finest achievements of the cinematic medium, not only for its impressive collection of diverse and eventual legendary talents who contributed to its production, but also for its prescient statement on how our socio-economic statuses can misguide our perceptions of reality and create delusional hopes of admittance into a functional society that is most likely non-existent because, in fact, society is as fractured as we are.

The Conformist opens at the Film Forum in NYC on January 6 before expanding to theaters nationally. Featured photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The Conformist

Generoso and Lily Fierro



Originally published on Ink 19 on December 1, 2022
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

Over the past few years, we’ve tried to select a handful of words to describe undercurrents in our favorite films of the year. For 2022, one word overwhelmingly emerged as the winner to link the films that inspired and demanded us to look more closely at the cinematic form and our world at large: connectivity.

This year, every film in our Best Of list addresses our attempts to connect with people and/or places in some way. Sometimes the connections are new ones. Other times, they are old ones that are changing. And, more often than not, they fail to meet original expectations. Despite the likelihood of disappointment, connectivity is more important than ever, and our favorite films underscore the fragility of human interactions in an era where a past pandemic is now in the rearview mirror and distant warning signals of future ones may be ahead, keeping isolation at the top of our minds.

There are a multitude of approaches to such a broad concept in our shifting times, and consequently, this year’s list has entries from a variety of genres. Some veer towards science fiction. Many incorporate hybrid cinema techniques. One is a pure documentary. A few are dialogue-centric. And, a couple even have comedic roots. As thus, we hope that each film covers a distinct facet/perspective of our world and that, collectively, they propel us towards a hope for a new (or at least restored) sense of awareness for everything, big and small, moving around us.

We send immense gratitude to the fine folks at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, Independent Film Festival Boston, the Brattle Theater, Films at Lincoln Center, and the Coolidge Corner Theater for their outstanding programming efforts that brought exceptional works to screens and audiences throughout the year. Please support these festivals, microcinemas, and independent theaters as they are vital to the progress and strengthening of our communities.

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Pacifiction / France, Spain / dir. Albert Serra

In the earliest scenes of Pacifiction, French Navy sailors land at a small harbor, and soon after, a disarmingly sickly, yet mesmerizing sky fills the screen. Immediately, we begin to suspect that we are somewhere in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle. But, as Pacifiction hones in on Monsieur De Roller (Benoît Magimel), a High Commissioner to French Polynesia, we start to detect echoes of Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, setting in place the expectations of a story about a wayward colonial government representative long forgotten because of time, distance, and insignificance. However, throughout Pacifiction, Serra navigates away from any familiar narrative devices and continuously re-directs all of our attention to Monsieur De Roller, whose actions present a fascinating, morally ambiguous, and unsettlingly contemporary character. De Roller is not like the morally decrepit of the past. He’s not a hedonist. He’s not an ideologue. And, in fact, he maintains positive (though palpably fragile) relationships with most around him — so much so that he is someone that both Polynesian community leaders and French expats trust. But, De Roller is a deceptive, complex figure, and Serra allows us to study his actions and conversations to try to decipher his motivations. After we see stern, diplomatic, amiable, and pseudo-casual versions of De Roller through his interactions with others, we take notice of something consistent in his demeanor: control. Not that of a dictatorial kind, but rather control that comes from a keen understanding of the people around him and the ability to push and pull different strengths and tensions in order to maintain stability and peace for himself in his environment. De Roller’s attentive yet noticeably distant countenances in most settings reveal his lack of commitment to any particular cause, yet his words, particularly terms of negotiation, often acknowledge, address, and take some action on his conversational partner(s) concerns. De Roller doesn’t want to help people, but he does want to maintain his control over the systems he has mastered in his surroundings: positive outcomes are necessary, and acts of physical violence towards his fellow inhabitants are generally avoided because of their long-term consequences. This approach works perfectly for De Roller until an admiral (Marc Susini) arrives and continues to reappear in De Roller’s social circles while rumors of the return of nuclear testing spread, stirring up paranoia in De Roller as French military powers threaten the equilibrium he’s created for himself and remind him of his insignificance beyond the shores of French Polynesia. Pacifiction stands out as Albert Serra’s most approachable work to date, but despite the illusion of a narrative laden with images that evoke familiar motifs in fictions of the past, Pacifiction slyly uses known conventions to mislead you towards a grand ending or a climax that never happens. Instead, we enter a paradoxically hyper-real and hyper-fictionalized world that mirrors our own distortions of reality and see it through the hyperbolic, morally indifferent eyes of De Roller, who perfectly represents the collision of unsavory geopolitical histories, strategic diplomacy and conciliation, basic self-interest, and powers far beyond our grasp and perception, all of which are forces that underlie our own daily actions, even if we don’t want to be aware of them.

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Memoria / Colombia, Thailand / dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Though many in the US had the opportunity to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria in 2021, it arrived in our town via its roadshow (which is still ongoing!) earlier this year. Set in Colombia, Memoria centers our attention on Jessica (Tilda Swinton), an orchidologist on a visit to Bogotá for a mix of professional and personal reasons. Her sister lives there and is currently in the hospital with a peculiar unknown illness, so Jessica has arrived to comfort her, and while there, she takes the opportunity to do some research on orchid fungi for her work as well. However, the sudden onset of a thunderous sound that only she can hear pulls her out of her own life as she tries to find its source, and in doing so, she experiences a different kind of life guided by her connections to the people and places around her. Jessica becomes a transistor for the collective energies and memories of her surroundings: she absorbs and amplifies tones from modern histories, individual pasts, primordial times, and possibly even extraterrestrial presents, and through her immersion, we too are able to connect the same frequencies reverberating in ourselves as we sit in our theater seats. A film not to be watched but rather experienced because of its sensuous audio and visual elements, Memoria has been (and will only ever be) available in the US through limited engagements in theaters, major and minor, across the country. And such an exhibition and distribution method is only too apt for Memoria because, in going to theaters to see the film, we too are actively sharing a collective experience, a practice that had been put on pause since the COVID-19 pandemic and, as a result, has become layered with our own recollections of the past and hopes that communal connectivity around cinema can be restored again one day soon. Read our full review of Memoria here.

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The Cathedral / United States / dir. Ricky D’Ambrose

It is oddly fitting that this review of Ricky D’Ambrose’s family epic, The Cathedral, is being written only a few days after the passing of Jean-Marie Straub, as D’Ambrose’s second full-length feature bears many of the minimalist visual attributes and verbal punctuations indicative of the works of Straub and his longtime partner, Danièle Huillet. However, The Cathedral diverges from the mostly text to screen relational works of Straub-Huillet in its narrative construction, which is based on moments that are naturally recalled from memory. Created as a semi-autobiography, The Cathedral focuses the on the pre-college life of only child Jesse Damrosch (portrayed by both Robert Levey II and William Bednar Carter), the son of Richard (Brian d’Arcy James) and Lydia (Monica Barbaro), suburban Italian-American parents who struggle mightily to maintain their family’s middle-class identity and status. Framed against a backdrop composed of major world events from the 1980s through the 2000s, which are dispensed through interjected news reports, the moments of familial misunderstandings and deafening silences endured by Jesse during his upbringing reach levels that rival these grand historical events when experienced through the mind of a young man who knows only his family’s contained world. Impressively, D’Ambrose presents the Damrosch/his family’s tribulations without the use of any over-dramatic staging of their dysfunctional moments, which has become the norm in films that depict the Italian-American experience. As we watch businesses fail and relationships falter in The Cathedral, we clearly understand the causality of these shortcomings: they stem more from the Damrosch family’s inability to fully integrate due to a socioeconomic system that is likely set against them, and less from what is usually seen in cinema when the failures of Italian-Americans are the results of a lack of desire to acclimate and, thus, move away from an outdated cultural imperative. Throughout The Cathedral, D’Ambrose artfully maintains a distance to his story through sound and framing that provide us with a clear lens that, to some, may feel overly unemotional, but is no less impactful and honest in its personal message of disenfranchisement.

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El Gran Movimiento / Bolivia, France, Qatar, Switzerland / dir. Kiro Russo

In the La Paz presented in El Gran Movimiento, practices and traditions of the past coexist alongside the mercantile systems of the present and the forces of capitalism steadily making their way through the geographies, architecture, and sociopolitical structures in and around the city. Kiro Russo takes us through and between all of these different energies with flashes of sound and images, zoomed in and out, to form a buzzing kaleidoscope of La Paz with components radiating from (or perhaps towards) its central point, Elder (Julio César Ticona), a coal miner who has walked to the city after losing his job. Elder simply wants to find any kind of work, but his body and the city have other intentions for him. He has a mysterious respiratory disease that intensifies when he arrives. Initially, we suspect that the mines have caused Elder’s illness, but the longer he remains in the urban heart of La Paz, where he’s exploited by market suppliers, mocked by stall-keepers, and even somewhat teased by his able-bodied friends, the more he weakens, and soon we realize that Elder’s spirit is being consumed by the malevolent forces in his surroundings. Thankfully, Mama Pancha (Francisa Arce de Aro), a woman who takes in Elder and claims to be his godmother, and Max (Max Bautista Uchasara), a shaman who provides treatments for both Mama Pancha and Elder, counter with those of a more humane past and provide hope as they manage to survive in or near the city — Mama Pancha in a building down a long forgotten alley and Max in the mountainous forest beyond the urban center — and through them, Elder has a chance to live. El Gran Movimiento is certainly political at its core, but its politics are neither dogmatic nor rigid: they are inherently human-centric and understand how an individual person manifests their flaws and triumphs to varying degrees, sometimes modulated by internal motivations, other times by external societal pressures, and oftentimes by some combination of both, which aggregate in the cities where people gather, assemble, and clash. La Paz in El Gran Movimiento is bewildering, haunting, and striking because it is an ecosystem that has its own mechanisms for operation and survival with chaos regularly injected. The city is its own character brimming with imperfections and occasional flecks of kindness and virtue. And hence, it is fundamentally representative of the modern human.

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Mato Seco em Chamas (Dry Ground Burning) / Brazil, Portugal / dirs. Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós

Back in the spring of 2018, we were extremely fortunate to catch a screening of Once There Was Brasilia (Era uma Vez Brasília) at Locarno in Los Angeles. That politically urgent, low-budget science fiction film, which was awarded a Special Mention in Locarno the previous year, was the first collaboration between director Adirley Queirós and his then cinematographer, Joana Pimenta. A top ten film for us in 2018, Queirós’s feature inventively blended tropes from dystopian sci-fi and post-apocalyptic cinema to deliver a poignant statement on contemporary Brazil from a futuristic world devoid of hope. With their new feature, Dry Ground Burning, Joana Pimenta has returned as the DP and, in addition, has joined Adirley Queirós as a co-director for an ambitious docu-fiction work that brings our filmmakers back to the beleaguered district of Ceilândia, the site of their aforementioned sci-fi film.

At the center of Pimenta and Queirós’s Dry Ground Burning are half-sisters Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) and Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), leaders of a gang who sell purloined gasoline to bikers in their Sol Nascente favela, a community that has long given up on the promises and hopes of societal enrichment from governmental investment into the Brazilian infrastructure after the extraction of untold amounts of oil found in the country during the mid-2000s. As the sisters run gasoline with their all-female crew, we learn about the pervasive history and impact of crime and incarceration in their current lives and future. Timelines pause, reverse, and skip forward in Dry Ground Burning, but the oil rig and refinery remains as the emanating point for Chitara, Léa, and their teammate Andreia (Andreia Vieira), who together provide their neighborhood with gasoline while also supporting themselves and their families before splitting apart as the surrounding police state descends on them. From its early scenes, Dry Ground Burning is intentionally framed as a neo-western mixed with shades of City of God, but, as the film progresses, Pimenta and Queirós strip away any cinematic tropes and build the film’s strength not from typical action scenes, but from raw dialogues heard between the sisters and their gang and long takes of the women working at the rig and living outside of its gates, which humanize the overall feeling of desperation and survival in Sol Nascente in a way that slickly shot gunplay could never achieve. We discussed Dry Ground Burning with co-director Joana Pimenta during this year’s AFI Fest, and that interview is available here on Ink 19.

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De Humani Corporis Fabrica / France, United States / dir. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor

Unseen systems that generate outputs that we interact with, such as water purification or the conversion of gasoline into energy, continuously operate all around us. We understand some systems abstractly. But with others, we don’t even quite know their parts. The systems in our bodies fall into both of these categories, and for the longest time, we would only learn about them through ailments with clear, perceptible symptoms, and we rarely saw into the physiological culprits. Hospitals too are their own systems that we engage with when we need treatment for our bodies and minds, but unless we are (or intimately know) medical professionals, we rarely get to see how parts of the hospital system work and how operations are performed. In De Humani Corporis Fabrica, directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor present images and sounds from studies of components of hospital and body systems far from perfection and provide us new, visceral, uncomfortable, and amazing views into both. In operating rooms, via laparoscopic cameras, we travel through unknown ducts and tubes to watch surgical graspers, scissors, and needles cut, repair, or remove tissues and organs. In labs, we see tumors prepared for microscopic study and the resulting psychedelic slices projected onto screens. In geriatric hallways, we see how our physical and mental faculties wear down with age. And, in the morgue, we see masses of bodies that have reached the end of their lifecycles. Mixed into these varying internal and external views of the human form, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor pipe in casual conversations throughout various hospital settings that reveal the less than ideal conditions doctors and nurses face with unsustainable case loads, staff reductions, and even surgical supply shortages. Yet, despite the feeling that everything inside the hospitals featured in De Humani Corporis Fabrica may be broken, the doctors and nurses manage to continue maintaining and fixing the human body and keeping the hospitals’ systems running, instilling in us wonder that our bodies work at all and awe in the fortitude and resilience of medical professionals who see our bodies at their lowest points every day.

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Espíritu sagrado (The Sacred Spirit) / Spain, France, Turkey / dir. Chema García Ibarra

As seen by the church activities of the protagonists living in the district of Ceilândia in Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós’s film Dry Ground Burning, spiritual identity and connection are essential in a place enduring through economic hardship, and the same message can be said, but in a radically different way for the residents of the depressed town of Elche, the setting for Chema García Ibarra’s inventive feature-film debut, The Sacred Spirit. With its cold open to the mid-essay speech given by a seraphic young girl who directly speaks to her class about the need for priests in her town to baptize babies lest they become the unwilling organ donors to devil-worshippers, Ibarra abruptly and surrealistic offers us the town of Elche as a place that is wildly devoid of traditional religion as guide for conduct. After that first moment, we find out that the young orator is Veronica, the twin sister of Vanessa, who may have been kidnapped by a gang of organ thieves operating the in the town, a dire situation that leaves their mother Charo (Joanna Valverde) with no other option than to take to the airwaves to plead for her daughter’s return. Soon, the film shifts to Vanessa and Veronica’s uncle, José Manuel (Nacho Fernández), a cafe owner and member of the local UFO collective Ovni-Levante, who must tend to his disabled mother, Carmina (Rocío Ibáñez), the town’s medium who has been rendered fairly uncommunicative due to the progression of Alzheimer’s. Though it would seem that the grim reality of Vanessa’s disappearance should take center stage in José Manuel’s life, the death of Ovni-Levante’s leader takes precedence instead, as José Manuel is the only one with deep enough knowledge to guide humanity through the approaching extraterrestrial phenomenon. For its engine, Ibarra fills The Sacred Spirit with fantastical instances that thrive in the uncomfortable space between laughter and tragedy to purposefully misdirect you before delivering his film’s closing message of how our frenzied need to believe in the unreal in a time filled with dizzying untruths can cloud our judgment to dangerously obscure a real evil.

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Re Granchio (The Tale of King Crab) / Italy, France / Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis

With their feature, The Tale of King Crab, directors Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis weave the folklore of the Tuscia town of Vejano into its current reality then spin a new myth from both. The final film of a triptych concentrated on stories told by the members of a hunting lodge in Vejano, The Tale of King Crab opens with the hunters regaling the beginnings of the heroic journey of Luciano (Gabriele Silli), the son of the town’s doctor and a local drunkard who lived in Vejano some time near the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Born into a class awkwardly straddled in between the peasants of the town and the royalty and clergy that rule it, Luciano contends with both when he expresses his love for Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the daughter of a shepherd. Emma’s father refuses to allow Luciano to be with Emma. And, much to the disdain of Luciano, who has never been a fan of the oppressive and seemingly trivial rules of royalty, Emma catches the attention of the local prince when she’s selected to be the symbolic Mary of the Feast of St. Orsio. With these dual forces pulling Emma away from him, Luciano commits a tragic act of arson that leads to his exile to Tierra del Fuego, a purgatory for him to reflect on his sins in Vejano. At the other end of the world, Luciano, who now fashions himself as a priest, embarks on an archetypal quest for redemption, but along the way, Rigo de Righi and Zoppis intertwine a set of uncouth pirates, a compass in the form of Tierra del Fuego’s iconic king crab, and diverse landscapes that shouldn’t coexist but somehow do at this point at the end of the earth. All of these rich details build a mythology around Luciano that has its own distinctive world with all of the essentials of a grand epic, and altogether, they breathe life into a classical genre that is centuries old, the fairy tale, reminding us that timeless narrative traditions can still be relevant and significant to the imaginations of today because the travails and triumphs of an imperfect hero will always manage to resonate with us in some way. Our full-length review of The Tale of King Crab is available here.

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Das Mädchen Und Die Spinne (The Girl and the Spider) / Switzerland / dirs. Ramon Zürcher and Silvan Zürcher

Silence can emphasize sound and action, or it can take on a meaning of its own. In The Girl and the Spider, the absence of sound carries the weight of the film’s mood and gives us a glimpse into the history, complications, and uncommunicated sentiments hiding below and in between its characters’ actions and words. The premise of the film is simple in concept: Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of an apartment that she has been sharing with Mara (Henriette Confurius) and Markus (Ivan Georgiev) and into an apartment for herself alone. We see the moving day activities in the former and the new apartment, and as boxes get filled and depart then arrive, we meet characters connected to the spaces. In the old apartment, we meet neighbors who exist across multiple generations, and in the new apartment, we meet a neighbor with two young children and repairmen hired to make the place a home for Lisa. In between the movements, there are plenty of glances and conversations, but all of the characters remain fairly enigmatic to us as the viewers: even if they say or do something, they all seem burdened with words that cannot or will not come out into the open. Mara is noticeably upset with Lisa’s departure, but remains relatively quiet with the exception of an outburst. Lisa is determined to make the move happen, but we’re never quite sure as to why she wants it so intensely. Lisa’s mother (Ursina Lardi) is trying her best to help with the moving efforts, but looks out of place and oddly draws recurring acts of passive and active aggression from her daughter. In turn, directors Ramon and Silvan Zürcher transform this common, domestic event of moving apartments into a microcosm of transition periods in life, that fleeting period where the connections and intimacy of the previous state collide with fresh motivations and anticipation of future interactions in the state to come. Such a transient period flows with a variety of paradoxical reactions and memories, and in the process, little can be done to express all of the feelings looming around the impending change, especially when many people are involved, so we proceed with what needs to be done or what feels proper to make the change happen, creating a forward motion even as tangents away from it continuously emerge. The Girl and the Spider stages all of these motions in the confines of the new and old apartment, and in doing so, amplifies everything around Lisa’s move and guides us to a quiet acceptance of the constancy of change.

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Dangsin-Eolgul-Apeseo (In Front of Your Face) / South Korea / dir. Hong Sang-soo

In 2022, we managed to view three new Hong Sang-soo films. As fans since seeing The Day He Arrives in 2012, we’ve always looked forward to the next iteration of Hong’s signatures: the uncomfortable pauses and glances, the conversations in various states of inebriation or caffeination, the cyclical actions of characters, and the quiet, yet unnerving disconnections of artists trying to interact with the world around them. These motifs always bring comfort and yet never feel stale, and consequently, most Hong films of late have felt like fresh variations on a treat that you adore. However, this is not the case with In Front of Your Face, which contains Hong’s dialogue and mood hallmarks assembled this time into a semi-linear structure far more urgent in tone than the circuitous ones of his previous films. From the earliest moments of meeting the elegant Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young), who has returned to Seoul to visit her sister (Cho Yunhee) and her home city after living in the US for many years, we sense that each interaction to come has greater meaning and stakes for her than what she superficially conveys. In a modest discussion over coffee with her sister, we learn that Sang-ok’s hopes for success in America never came true, and in her time away, an enormous chasm emerged between her and her sister, not for any dramatic reasons but rather because they took very different paths in their lives. As the sisters continue to familiarize themselves with each other, we learn about each one’s legacies in Seoul. Sang-ok gets recognized by strangers in the park, and we learn that she was once a prominent actress in Korea. And, in a separate moment, we meet Jeong-ok’s adult son, who is a kind and respectful owner of a small restaurant specializing in tteokbokki. From these scenes, we overwhelmingly sense that Sang-ok is on some kind of farewell tour, and we get full confirmation of this suspicion when she meets with a director, Jae-won (played by the frequent Hong proxy Kwon Hae-Hyo), who is a longtime fan and who drunkenly promises to make Sang-ok’s final film. Melancholic overall with fleeting infusions of playfulness, In Front of Your Face is perhaps Hong’s most sentimental film to date, but every second has an effortlessness, humanity, and honesty that makes Sang-ok’s experiences all the more meaningful, slowing down time and building an appreciation for life’s oddities, failures, and accomplishments.

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Trenque Lauquen / Argentina, Germany / dir. Laura Citarella

At the center of the cosmos of Laura Citarella’s Trenque Lauquen is Laura (Laura Paredes), a woman who has gone missing. A botanist sent to Trenque Lauquen for a cataloging project that could cement her success as an academic, Laura has her own pulsating, shifting orbit that intersects with those of Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd), her boyfriend and academic partner in Buenos Aires, Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri), her institute assigned driver turned investigative partner in Trenque Lauquen, and Elisa (Elisa Carricajo), a brusque and mysterious local doctor. In the moments she shares with each of these main players, sometimes in person, other times through phone calls and voice messages, we as the audience learn more about the transformations that led up to Laura’s disappearance. In part one of the film, Citarella primarily focuses our attention on Laura, Rafael, and Ezequiel. Rafael and Ezequiel actively search for Laura by car, and as they ask for information from various shop owners and farmers along the roads, their chances of success look slim. Rafael and Ezequiel are both discreet in what they share about their own relationships with Laura, preventing them (and us) from piecing together a complete understanding of Laura. However, as Citarella takes us back in time to learn about the evolution of Ezequiel and Laura’s relationship through Laura’s discovery and compulsive excavation of letters written in the 1960s between two lovers (Carmen, a teacher in the town, and Paolo, the father of two of her students) and Ezequiel’s contributions to the investigation to understand who the lovers were and how their relationship fell apart, we begin to better understand Laura in the period before her disappearance. Upon discovering a letter between the lovers hidden in a book by Alexandra Kollontai, Laura abandons her plant cataloging project and instead spends all of her time voraciously combing through the Martín Fierro estate’s large donation to the Trenque Lauquen library to hunt for the rest of the letters hidden inside of the collection. As she attempts to piece together the letters’ timelines and portraits of their writers, she shares the knowledge with Ezequiel, and with his own connections to the history of Trenque Lauquen, he helps Laura connect Carmen and Paolo to their positions and statuses in the town. But, despite this expanded knowledge and Laura’s success in extracting the complete series of correspondence between Carmen and Paolo, the letters point towards a surprisingly unclear resolution, for, as they progressed in time, Carmen’s location became more ambiguous and eventually unknown.

As the second part of Trenque Lauquen opens, we learn about how Laura became intertwined with Elisa, beginning with the moment when she asked Laura for a sample of a short yellow flower. This simple request pulls Laura into a local event and its fallout — the discovery and presence of a half-human, half-amphibian child in Trenque Lauquen’s lake and Elisa and her partner Romina’s roles in becoming the child’s caretakers and secret guardians. When Laura finally brings a sample of the flowers to Elisa’s home, she gains partial entry into Elisa’s life. However, little is shared about the child and Elisa’s intentions for it, even as Elisa and Romina (Verónica Llinás) ask Laura for her assistance with growing plants and finding materials for something that Laura can only assume is a simulated habitat. Though Laura never gets to see the child/creature, she nevertheless works harmoniously alongside Elisa and Romina and develops a more collaborative spirit, allowing her to open up, receive, and accept what may come, regardless of how irrational or unexplainable it may be. So, when Elisa, Romina, and the child must flee and Laura receives instructions from Elisa explaining things to collect and meet up points, Laura complies, and as she works to fulfill Elisa’s requests, she is sharply aware of everything around her and absorbs it all. Trenque Lauquen doesn’t seek a solution to a mystery. Instead, it documents the awakenings and transformations caused by and within Laura, making her whereabouts far less important than her impact on the people and places she interacted with and their influence on her. We spoke with director Laura Citarella during AFI Fest 2022, and that interview is available here on Ink 19.

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A Chiara / Italy, France / dir. Jonas Carpignano

The winner of the Directors’ Fortnight Award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, A Chiara is the final installment of director Jonas Carpignano’s Calabrian triptych set in the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro. Here, the focus is on 15-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), the middle daughter of upper-middle class parents, Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) and Carmela (Carmela Fumo) Guerrasio. As a Gen Z Italian teen of some privilege, Chiara blissfully goes about her days without a concern, but when she witnesses a car bombing that occurs on the street outside of her sister Giulia’s (Grecia Rotolo) eighteenth birthday party, that moment of seemingly random violence sets in a motion of chain of events that alerts Chiara to the nefarious nature of her father’s illicit activities. When news reports detailing her father’s ties to the ‘Ndrangheta reach school, a disgraced Chiara sets out on a search for answers and enlists the help of Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), who brings Chiara to Ciambra, the center of the Roma community in Gioia Tauro and the neighborhood of the Amato family, whom we lived with in Carpignano’s previous entry of the triptych. But in A Chiara, we approach the Ciambra from a different perspective as Chiara begrudgingly tries to comprehend the role that her father has played in exploiting this community and responds to her frustrations by committing a violent action against a Roma teen girl. Now guilty of a crime herself, Chiara’s sentence enacts a governmental order created to break up crime families: she must sever all ties with her family in Gioia Tauro and relocate to Urbino to live with a government-approved, wealthy family helmed by a pediatrician. With each film in Carpignano’s triptych, we see how family, ethnicity, and economic standing influence the actions of and the ramifications against each of the films’ main characters. Each protagonist is forced at some point to make a decision related to their individual family, and the available choices are determined by their statuses as Italians, varying from newly arrived immigrant to a member of a Roma community to a more established multigenerational family, which reflect the current state of acculturation and national identity in Italy overall. Read our full review of A Chiara here.

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Wood and Water / Germany, France / dir. Jonas Bak

At the opening of Wood and Water, we meet Anke on a monumental day in her adult life: her last day of work before retirement. Anke has worked as an employee of a small church in an idyllic village in the Black Forest for many years, and the tranquility of her work setting extends into her last day and retirement, which are both peaceful, but somewhat lonely. As a new retiree, Anke first sets out to organize a modest reunion with her children at a cabin by the Baltic Sea that was the site of many past vacations, but when her son, Max, fails to make it because he’s stuck in Hong Kong as the pro-democracy protests surge, Anke decides to go to him. Amidst the high tensions and energy in Hong Kong, Anke walks and observes all that is around her and converses with older denizens of the city who articulate pasts long gone and a present that is somewhat alien but, alas, is right in front of them. The longer she remains in Hong Kong, the more Anke finds her own pace to experience her new reality as a retiree, a foreigner, and a mother of adult children. For the role of Anke, director Jonas Bak casted his own mother, Anke Bak, who at the time of filming was not retired but was in the twilight of her working years. This decision imbues Wood and Water with a tenderness that never veers towards the cloyingly sweet because the film projects Anke forward to a retirement that doesn’t regress into the past but rather explores a changing future with self-assurance and heightened awareness. A confident debut feature, Wood and Water gifts us with a refreshing sense of calm, not through escape but rather through absorption.

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Incroyable mais vrai (Incredible But True) / France, Belgium / dir. Quentin Dupieux

Over the last two decades plus, director Quentin Dupieux has excelled far beyond any other filmmaker in accentuating the absurd in his comedies to reveal our shortcomings. Case in point is last year’s hysterically funny effort from Dupieux, Mandibules, where he gave us the most extreme version of a slacker film where our protagonists’ total lack of desire to earn an honest wage prompts them to transform a giant house fly into a thief to do their bidding. One of two comedies directed this year by Dupieux (the other being Smoking Causes Coughing), Incredible But True sees Léa Drucker and Dupieux regular Alain Chabat playing Marie and Alain, a middle-aged couple who purchase a run down house that contains one remarkable supernatural quality — a basement manhole access to an upstairs hallway corner that progresses time by a half-day while also reversing aging by three days for whoever travels through it. Though this feature would be of endless fascination to some, in the world of Dupieux, Alain and Marie find it merely amusing at first and simply revel in their new digs, but all that changes after their first dinner party when their friend and Alain’s boss, Gégé (played by Benoît Magimel whose boorish character here is clearly more evil than his turn as Monsieur De Roller in Albert Serra’s Pacifiction), boasts of his recent surgery that replaced his perfectly functional penis with one that is bluetooth-enabled and (in theory) is always ready on-demand. Now, face to face with Gégé’s wonder phallus and his young and beautiful partner, Jeanne (Anaïs Demoustier), Marie sees green and subsequently takes fanatical advantage of her new time machine with the hopes of eventually turning the clock back far enough so that she can become a teenage fashion model, and while she regresses in age and outlook, Alain’s concern for her deteriorating mental health situation grows each day. Though only 74 minutes in length and fairly simple in its overall message of the consequences of envy that arise with the fear of mortality, Dupieux fills Incredible But True with scenes of laugh out loud comedy and understated emotion that make the film a remarkably compassionate watch.

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Cette Maison (This House) / Canada / dir. Miryam Charles

After the sudden loss of a loved one, there is an essential need within many of us to understand the why before we can imagine what could’ve been. For director Miryam Charles, the tragic loss of her cousin, Terra, who died under violent and mysterious circumstances at the age of fourteen in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2008, is experienced in Cette Maison through a reconstruction, not of the crime, but of the trajectory of Terra in her real and imagined life via her family’s reactions to her passing and their connections to the physical spaces that they’ve existed in through their migrations years prior and since her passing. As an experiential process, Charles depicts the varying states of sadness, grief, and resignation through different visual motifs that recurrently pull us closer then away to emulate time against impact. When we witness the day that Terra is found dead, Charles recreates the moments as a formal stage play, complete with facades and direct lighting in a way that feels dramatic and intense but classical and familiar in appearance. Charles ages Terra through the performance of actress Schelby Jean-Baptiste, who is close to the age of Terra had she lived, and as Terra engages with her mother (Florence Blain Mbaye) in confrontational conversations, their communication evokes a bi-directional transference of spirit that manifests as a documentary of mourning, memory, and imagination which carries Terra’s spirit back and forth from Connecticut to Quebec to Haiti through her mother’s grief. These erratic shifts of location and storytelling style are juxtaposed with Charles’s use of grainy 16mm film and warm natural light, which imbue us with a sense that Terra’s death and her family’s inability to find a place of belonging are forever intertwined. We spoke with director Miryam Charles during this year’s AFI FEST, and that conversation is available here.

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Los Conductos (The Conduits) / Colombia, France, Brazil / dir. Camilo Restrepo

Luis Felipe “Pinky” Lozano has escaped the insidious grasp of a cult and its leader to find himself roaming the streets of Medellín in a profound state of loss. Loosely based on Pinky’s actual experiences after fleeing a tyrannical religious sect, Los Conductos follows Pinky through a psychedelic purgatorial state of consciousness as he takes refuge in an illegal factory where he produces textiles embossed with images of eternal fire, indulges in narcotics, and plots future revenge (or perhaps past actions of vengeance) on the cult’s “padre.” Though set in contemporary Colombia, Restrepo creates a enigmatic sense of time that adds layers to the hallucinatory atmosphere by drawing from the visual aesthetic of Jodorowsky’s 70s output, while incorporating elements of the past, such as the story of the real life 1950s outlaw Desquite (Revenge), who acts as a mirror of sorts to Pinky’s feelings of rage and contempt for the oppressive world that he left behind and the damaged place he now inhabits. Adventurously shot by Guillaume Mazloum on grainy 16mm that adds a palpable unease, as Los Conductos freely progresses in a non-linear fashion without a definitive sense of era, it feels less like a statement about today’s Colombia and more like one from Restrepo that aims at a country that has historically exploited its inhabitants and has never been united in a goal for a peaceful existence. Drawing its strength from its contrasting elements, Los Conductos steers us through each of Pinky’s denouncements of the violence permeating every strata of his identity, and by the end, we are ultimately left to ruminate on a single line of a poem by Gonzalo Arango that asks, “When will Colombia stop killing its sons?”

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Flaming Ears (4K Restoration) / Austria / dirs. Angela Hans Scheirl, Ursula Pürrer, and Dietmar Schipek

Though set in the year 2700, 1991’s dystopian and prophetic science fiction film Flaming Ears is a fitting work to be restored and re-released in 2022. After two years plus of COVID-19 fatalities, lockdowns, and social distancing, our concept of urban society is even more unsettled now than it was during the ruinous period surrounding the initial release of Flaming Ears in which the aftermath of the consumerist 1980s coupled with a decade of fears from the HIV epidemic reimagined urban landscapes for worse. Set during the Year of the Toads, Angela Hans Scheirl, Ursula Pürrer, and Dietmar Schipek’s feature primarily focuses its attention on three denizens of the fictional industrial wasteland city of Asche: Spy (Susanna Heilmayr), Volley (co-director Ursula Pürrer), and Nun (co-director Angela Hans Scheirl), whose existences begin to intersect when the rollerskating pyromaniac and sex performer Volley destroys the work and printing means of Spy, a comicbook creator. At the same time, Volley’s lover Nun wanders around Asche as a corrective force that challenges both the anarchic and perverse elements of the city, and when Spy is injured as she seeks revenge on Volley, Nun rescues her. As Nun figuratively devours the plagues from the book of Exodus while searching for pure expressions of love, she becomes a symbol of everyone who once strived to help invigorate and protect the extreme factions of attitudes, both cultural and social, that kept cities vibrant. As a statement on the 1980s, Flaming Ears provided a biting comment on the homogenizing effects that HIV and the rapid gentrification by urban professionals had on most megalopolises, and in 2022, it is a grim reminder that our major cities, though densely packed, are filled with isolated people who only see their neighbors as obstacles standing in the way of their contentment. You can read our full review of Flaming Ears here

Featured image courtesy of Grasshopper Films

Generoso and Lily Fierro



Originally published on Ink 19 on November 29, 2022
Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso

It’s been just over a decade since the premiere of director Laura Citarella’s feature Ostende, the film that first suggested the character of Laura, who appears at the center of her newest feature, Trenque Lauquen. During the time since Ostende, Citarella has enjoyed great success as an integral part of the famed filmmaking collective El Pampero Cine, a major force within the New Argentine Cinema movement. In 2015, Citarella, along with Verónica Llinás, co-directed the critically acclaimed naturalist feature Dog Lady (La Mujer de los Perros), and Citarella followed up that directorial effort with the release of Mariano Llinás’s 808-minute, six part masterwork, La Flor (The Flower), one of our top ten films of the 2010s, which she acted in and produced over a ten-year period. And in 2019, she co-directed the documentary Las Poetas Visitan a Juana Bignozzi with Mercedes Halfon.

Presented into two parts, Citarella’s Trenque Lauquen transforms Ostende’s passive lead character of Laura (Laura Paredes) into a determined botanist who has vanished from the titular town where she had originally been sent to complete a scholarly plant cataloging assignment. Part one begins with the introduction of the two men who are trying to track down Laura: her boyfriend from Buenos Aires and university colleague, Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd), and Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri), a hapless municipal driver who has become infatuated with Laura after they shared a passion for the old letters sent between two lovers (Carmen, a teacher in Trenque Lauquen, and Paolo, the father of two of her students) that Laura serendipitously found tucked into the pages of books in Trenque Lauquen’s library donated by the estate of Martín Fierro, the eponymous protagonist of the epic poem by the Argentine writer José Hernández.

Part two of Citarella’s film expands into the history of Laura’s involvement with Trenque Lauquen’s doctor, Elisa (La Flor’s Elisa Carricajo), who has asked Laura for a sample of a yellow flower. This seemingly normal botanical solicitation leads to an event where Laura uncovers Elisa and her partner Romina’s (Verónica Llinás) vocation of protecting the half-human, half-amphibian child that exists in the town’s lake, compelling Elisa and Romina to ask Laura for her assistance in cultivating plants for a habitat that can support the child’s development. Laura complies, and when Elisa, Romina, and the child must leave their home, Laura assumes a greater role in their collaborative efforts while finally and fully connecting to the world around her.

A nominee for the Horizons Award for Best Film at this year’s Venice Film Festival, we adored this emotionally complex and engrossing feature when we saw it at AFI Fest 2022, where we picked it as one of our top watches. In our discussion with Citarella, we spoke about Trenque Lauquen’s connection to José Hernández’s Martín Fierro, the evolution of the character of Laura, the shortcomings of Rafael’s and Ezequiel’s theories, and Citarella’s love of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” and her use of it as her protagonist’s ringtone in both Ostende and Trenque Lauquen.

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GF: The name Martín Fierro is a galvanizing clue for Laura in Trenque Lauquen. Martín Fierro, of course, is the legendary protagonist from José Hernández’s duet of poems El Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) and La Vuelta de Martín Fierro (1879). In addition, the poems were written in a distinctively lyrical style that was inspired by payadas. Were Hernández’s poems a launching point for the structure and the musical nature of Trenque Lauquen? And if so, how much of the writing/experiential process of Hernández, who was well known for being a writer who lived alongside gauchos in the pampas, go into the construction of Laura’s character?

LC: As you may know, I am a part of a group of filmmakers called El Pampero Cine, and El Pampero is a wind that blows in the province of Buenos Aires, so we always work with Buenos Aires as an idea for making films, and so this is the pampas! If you go out from the city of Buenos Aires, you have the province of Buenos Aires where there are different cities, and if you go to the west, you will find Trenque Lauquen, and there you will find the pure pampas of the gaucho and everything in the world of Martín Fierro. Working in this atmosphere is a continuance of working in this place, which is very flat, and I believe that most filmmakers are afraid of shooting there because you never know how to frame it because it is a landscape that has no borders, but we love that. We love to find excuses or stories to invent that could take place in this scenery. That said, when we started working there years ago, we decided that this place would give our production company its name, El Pampero Cine. In 2011, I made a film there called Ostende, which is like the first part of Trenque Lauquen because the concept is to move from one town to another with the same character and build stories about each one, but always with the thought of portraying the pampas. We not only like to shoot in the province of Buenos Aires, but we also like being there, which is very strange as this is a province in Argentina that you usually just travel through to get to the next stop. Needless to say, this area also has an important relationship to Argentinian literature.

LF: One of the most entertaining and fascinating motifs connecting Ostende and Trenque Lauquen is the “Suspicious Minds’’ ringtone on Laura’s phone. Though the song itself and how it is played are identical in both films, the character of Laura has a different relation to the song in each. Whereas the character of Laura in Ostende is a bit lost in her life—she’s currently unemployed and living with her mom—the character of Laura in Trenque Lauquen is an accomplished researcher. Under these different circumstances, Ostende’s Laura’s actions are based on her suspicions, whereas Trenque’s Laura’s actions are based on her instincts. Was this evolution of suspicion into instinct something you wanted to be a directional guide to moving the Ostende series forward?

LC: Yes, that ringtone was chosen for this idea, apart from the fact that, back then, “Suspicious Minds” was my own personal ringtone because I have always been a huge Elvis Presley fan! My dad was a big Elvis fan, and every week, we would always watch Elvis movies together, so “Suspicious Minds’’ is a very emotional song for me. I kept that ringtone for Trenque Lauquen because I wanted to give you some clues that the character is the same, but the character in Trenque Lauquen has no past; her past is not Ostende. It is almost like The Simpsons (laughs) in that whenever a new episode comes out, everything starts again. So that was the idea, but I also wanted to confirm that the character was the same, so I chose to do this with different hints, such as the ringtone or the photo of Laura that Rafael shows everyone when he is trying to find her, which is the photo of Laura that we used for Ostende.

Apart from that, when we finished Ostende we wanted to use similar procedures of scene construction, but some years later, in the next film. However, as years go by, you are no longer the same person as a director. In between Ostende and Trenque Lauquen, I made two more films as a director, and then I also produced La Flor and other films for El Pampero Cine, so as a creator, you change, and with that, your point of view changes. So suddenly, this character that was in Ostende that was always watching situations and thinking about them alone is now involved with what is happening with the fiction of the film. In both films, she is a fan of finding fiction in places, but in the case of Ostende, she only keeps this as a mental activity, but in Trenque Lauquen, she puts her body in the situation. Therefore, if I had to say something concrete about this, it’s that I feel that, as a filmmaker, you always make the same film in one way, but you change with the years, and in some ways, I feel that the evolution of this character parallels my experiences and growth as a director. The character used to just watch, but now she is brave enough to be part of the adventure! She once was like the character in Rear Window, whereas now, she is like the main character in Vertigo.

GF: The unreliability of our own individual observations and theories is a recurring concept throughout Trenque Lauquen that impacts the experiences of many of the characters and even us as the viewers by the end of the film. The second part of the film particularly amplifies this when we find out that all of Rafael’s and Ezequiel’s hypotheses around Laura’s disappearance are proven wrong. At what point in the filmmaking or writing process did you decide that this would be the case?

LC: I like this idea, as I usually don’t like to speak directly about feminism and boys and girls, but suddenly I felt that there was an idea there: that the men are always incorrect, and the women are always right (laughs). I liked the concept, just like that of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, of a woman who disappears, and as a result, people begin to look for that woman. In the beginning, when we wrote this script, it was the other way around. It was a linear structure, but then we decided that it was much better to bring in these two men who are like bad amateur detectives. For us, this was the best way to show that this woman has disappeared. We found it more interesting to see Laura’s disappearance through the experiences of these two men, than by just seeing it directly. Also, I made a film before Trenque Lauquen called Las Poetas Visitan a Juana Bignozzi, which was a documentary, and in the structure of that film, we discovered that Juana Bignozzi was a poet who died. We were tasked with trying to reveal her profile with our film, and to accomplish this, we spoke about her and showed all of her objects until the middle of the film, when suddenly we showed a video of the poet herself. Through this process, I learned that it is very affecting to begin learning about a character through the eyes of someone else or through their objects, and that is why I waited until an hour and forty minutes into Trenque Lauquen to show Laura, and suddenly when you see her at that point, she has a mystery about her because you already are aware of the fact that she has disappeared, which makes for a stronger method of telling her story as you are imbibed with a feeling that you already know her destiny. You see her in flashback, but you, as the viewer, know that something will happen because she has vanished. Also, I liked this idea of different people having different points of views and versions of Laura, which puts in your head the idea that Laura isn’t any definitive way. It becomes more possible to surround her and not define her.

LF: In the first part of Trenque, we see Laura leading initiatives — she leads the cataloging research project, and she leads the hunt for the letters between Carmen and Paolo. And, in her leading efforts, she’s quite goal-oriented, and that applies often to her interactions with people. However, by the second part of the film, when she becomes entrenched in Elisa and Romina’s life, she becomes a contributor to their work to covertly raise the possibly amphibious child, and at this point, she becomes more open to experiences and seems warmer overall. How did you strike the balance between these two versions of Laura? It seemed quite precarious, because going too far with either side could have disconnected her from the audience.

LC: In a way, what I wanted was to make a mutant film that changes all of the time. This idea of changing also involves the character of Laura. I wanted her to experience this same synchronistic change in her ways of behaving. I feel that this film comes from a fantasy of mine to have many lives in one lifetime. But, I know this is something that I cannot do as I live in a society where I have a daughter, and the actor who plays Ezequiel in the film is my husband, so I have this order in my life, and that means that this fantasy of having multiple lives would be viewed as crazy by most standards, so I am living this fantasy through the character of Laura, who embodies this idea of being present in your life and being so alive that you can fall into things without even thinking about the ramifications. It is kind of an instinctive way of behaving that starts in a very rational way in Trenque Lauquen with the discovery of the letters which then transforms into this world with the creature and these women and then everything else changes. Also, when Laura gets to know these women and when the creature appears in the lagoon, I think that some kind of fantastical element changes the logic of the characters. It is something that invades the rational world.

I also believe that, at that point, she dares to have this life, and the men surrounding her also get pulled into the adventure. The difference is that they can only go so far. I feel that Laura experiments with something that helps to make her feel alive, and Rafael and Ezequiel are, in a way, also moved by this. For the first time in their lives, when Rafael and Ezequiel turn into these amateur detectives, they feel that they can also take part in an adventure, but until they attempted these roles, they were both boring people. One is an academic, and the other one is a divorced man with two kids and an ex-wife, living in a little town and working for the municipality of Trenque Lauquen. And, suddenly this idea of moving everything and getting into an adventure is something that Laura has produced.

Furthermore, I feel that what draws Laura’s attention to the Kollontai book [where she finds the first letter between Carmen and Paolo] is this note from the editor that expresses this idea that with the collective, the first person, the singular person “I” becomes “we.” So, in a way, this is also what happens when Laura meets the two women because they work as a team, believing that you can live in that situation and that can only happen with a group mentality, which mirrors the way we all work in El Pampero Cine, which is fundamentally a collective.

Ultimately, I believe that men need to find the logic within things, but women just need to be there. Now, I am not saying that all men are a certain way and all women are a certain way, but in the context of this film, I think that Laura finds in these women a way of living that doesn’t require constant language, explanation, or logic, but instead they live in a way that is more instinctive, and that is really what Laura has been searching for her whole life.

GF: Trenque’s strength lies in its ability to transform myth into reality and vice versa, and one of the most interesting places where this occurs is around the yellow flower that precipitates the relationship between Elisa and Laura. We don’t officially know the name of the yellow flower, but it becomes an important narrative and symbolic device for the second part of the film. How did you go about selecting that flower, and what were your motivations behind leaving the exact species name unknown?

LC: This is kind of a Hitchcockian idea: in a specific element, you build a tension and a mysteriousness. The flower is the excuse for Elisa to approach Laura, and the flower is the excuse as to why Laura goes to Elisa. The mystery is there! I mean, why would Elisa be so obsessed with wildflowers? Perhaps this is a MacGuffin, but the flowers move the characters, and you eventually find out that the flowers provide a source of food for the creature. We need to give it flowers, or else it will die, so this was also a way of not speaking so much about the creature, but speaking more about how it survives. We added the flower into the narrative because, if we did not have an external element to join these women, we would have to reveal too much of the mystery behind this being. Laura went to Elisa’s house because of the being, and without the flower, we realized that we would be in a dangerous situation where we would have to show or speak more about it once Laura arrived, and we didn’t want that because we wanted the being to be a mystery in the midst of many other mysteries. We were concerned that one mystery would supersede the others in the film, so the flowers helped us to organize the enigma surrounding the creature without directly showing any part of its form. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Featured photo courtesy of Laura Citarella.

Joana Pimenta


Originally published on Ink 19 on November 25, 2022
Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso

Less than a week after voters selected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the next President of Brazil, we had the opportunity to speak with Portuguese-born director Joana Pimenta on the occasion of the AFI Fest screening of Dry Ground Burning (Mato Seco em Chamas), her newest feature, which she co-directed with Adirley Queirós.

We first encountered Pimenta’s immense talents as a storyteller when she lensed Adirley Queirós’s low-budget dystopian science fiction film, Once There Was Brasilia (Era uma Vez Brasília), one of our top ten films of 2018. Set in the struggling district of Ceilândia, Once There Was Brasilia effectively repurposed cinematic tropes as a tool to expand on how the political landscape of its respective period impacted a community that had long suffered since the construction of the city of Brasilia. However, even though it is set in the same district and also incorporates and recontextualizes known film references, Dry Ground Burning diverges from Brasilia in how it integrates documentary to play against genre cinema images, amplifying the dour reality in Ceilândia and adding a fierce urgency to the film’s depiction of the current political situation in Brazil and the programmatic incarceration of its citizens.

Dry Ground Burning follows the exploits of Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) and Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), life-hardened half-sisters who have tapped into an underground pipeline that provides them with the gasoline that they then sell to bikers in their favela of Sol Nascente, an area in dire need of any form of economic infrastructure. Concurrently, Chitara and Léa’s friend, Andreia (Andreia Vieira), who enters the film as a fellow gasolinheira, shifts into a political role by drawing together her community to support her campaign to become Sol Nascente’s district deputy candidate for the Prison People Party. Throughout Dry Ground Burning, Pimenta and Queirós provide their actors with ample space to engage each other in dialogues that build empathy for their situations, while the actions playing out around them provide us with a clear and biting metaphor of their government’s failed policies that led to the economic despair in their part of the country.

During our hour-long, in-depth conversation with Pimenta, we discussed her approach to Dry Ground Burning in her roles as both a cinematographer and as a co-director, the complex issues connected to the casting of Léa, the construction of the very real campaign of Andreia, the role of the Evangelicals in her film and in Brazil, and the election of Lula, which happened only days before our talk.

• •

LF: We were fortunate to see Once There Was Brasilia at Locarno in Los Angeles in 2018, and it was one of our favorite films of that year. Whereas Once There Was Brasilia leans heavily on action and visuals for its narrative, much of the weight of Dry Ground Burning is carried on the shoulders of the conversations and interactions of Léa and Chitara. How did this difference shape your approach as a cinematographer?

JP: We wanted to make a film about the daughters of the women who built the city of Ceilândia. If you’ve seen Brasilia and this film, you may know a bit of this story already, but in the 1960s, the President of Brazil at the time decided to build a new capital in the geographic center of the country, so he drew an “X” on the ground in a place that was only just desert before. To facilitate this project, they had to bring in construction workers in open trucks from all over Brazil. Once Brasilia was built, they created this thing called the Campaign for Eradication of Invasions, which is where the “CEI” that is inside the name Ceilândia comes from, and they proceeded to remove everyone who worked on the development to a city 50 km away from Brasilia, which became Ceilândia. After they removed these construction workers, they also removed the women who had been brought to the workers’ city to work as prostitutes because the laborers had not arrived with their families. Many of these women brought small children with them or were pregnant and became single mothers. As a result, because the men were working, they relied on these women to build the shacks and find water and electricity, so these women were the ones who actually built Ceilândia from the ground up. One of these women in Dry Ground Burning is Léa’s mother, and the other is Chitara’s mother, whom we filmed a lot, but unfortunately those scenes didn’t make it into the final cut. And, as discussed in the film, Léa and Chitara both shared the same father, so all four women’s stories are representative of the history of Ceilândia itself.

We knew that we wanted to work with these daughters of the women who had built Ceilândia, this second generation who are also single mothers and who also have an important leadership role in the life of the city. This is where all of the conversation in the film comes from in Dry Ground Burning. These women are not like this new group of women in the city who are in their 20s and are taking over the streets. They have a different kind of body, a different way of dressing, even a different kind of music — they listen to funk, whereas the generation of Léa and Chitara mostly listen to the kind of rap that you hear in the film, and in that way, we thought of Léa and Chitara as these kind of old cowboys who would hang out on the corners in a place where many of the people have been to jail and are unemployed, so they spend their time telling stories.

Thus, the cinematography had to create that space for us because we were not working with a script, and we needed a space for them to mobilize their memories and to be able to depart from the film’s constructed fiction so that they could bring in their own memories and make them the central part of film instead. We were a very small crew of five people, and because of that scale, we had a great deal of time — about eighteen months for this film — which gave us the space to establish the shot and wait for something to happen.

GF: Leá is magnetic — she devours the screen. Since seeing Dry Ground Burning, we’ve been immensely curious about the inspiration behind her performance. How much was her casting based on her own personal experiences and how she recounted them to you and Adirley?

JP: This was complex. We spent six months looking for Chitara. Chitara is a character that we had initially written. We wrote a script, but because we don’t film exact lines, it was more like a structure, a script that functioned for us as a primer so that we could communicate to our actors what kind of film they are getting into. They then knew that it was going to be political, that there was going to be a war, and that made things very clear to them going forward. This communication was super important to us because we were working with non-professional actors.

We had written about this woman who worked at a gas station, who smoked a lot and whose body was so covered and impregnated with gasoline that she was always on the verge of catching fire. This was the archetype for that character, and then it took us about six months to find the actress to play Chitara. We looked everywhere! It must be said that there is no cinema in Ceilândia. In fact, the closest cinema is an hour away, and therefore, there isn’t a tradition for the kind of work we make, and that made it very tough to approach people and convince them to come and have a conversation with us. Eventually, we found Chitara six months after the search began. She was amazing! We read the script together, and she was like, “Well, I smoked a lot. I worked at a gas station, and I know how to shoot a gun, so I’m in!”

At this point, Léa was still in jail for real. She had been in prison for seven years, and because of her behavior, the police kept looking for excuses to keep her inside, leaving us with no idea of when she was getting out. Andreia, who was also in Once There Was Brasilia, and Chitara would always talk about Léa. So, we began shooting and filmed for about eight months, and during that whole time, Chitara and Andreia kept telling stories about Léa, so she became something of a legend while she was still in prison! They would say things like, “Léa is this tall, and her hair is down to her knees, and once she took seven rubber bullets in jail and wouldn’t fall when most men would fall after getting struck with just one bullet.” Chitara and Andreia were constantly building off of their memories about Léa, and that made me and Adirley concerned because she wasn’t a character that was part of the film initially, so we then felt that we had to start searching for an actress to play Léa. But, out of nowhere, the real Léa got out of prison, and only two weeks later she was filming with us!

As you noticed in your question, Léa was even more than anything that we could’ve ever hoped for because she is an amazing natural actress. She just seemed to instinctively understand acting. For example, from the moment that we began filming with her, as soon as one of us would say, “Cut,” she would take off, and we would find her outside smoking or on the corner or on top of the roof. She had been in prison for seven years and didn’t even know what a cellphone was when she got out, but here she was, back in her life, and she was making a film!

In the beginning, Léa may have wanted to work with us because we wrote a twelve month contract with all of the actors, so they all knew that they are going to be paid in a place where it’s hard to find work that can be sustained for a long period of time. But, then, she quickly figured out that she was very good at her job. For instance, when we would tell her that we need to repeat a scene and to do it a certain way, she would respond with, “Oh no, don’t worry. I completely understand because this is the same way that it was in prison. You would have to tell the same story a million times, but every time you tell it, you have to tell it with belief because otherwise the other prisoners would stop listening to you and then you lose your voice of command.”

So, of course, as soon as Léa began working with us, we had to change the tone. We had already filmed for eight months at that point, but we had to make Léa one of the lead characters, and that changed the film into one that was more about her relationship with her half sister. We didn’t have a closed script, and because we had a small crew, we could use our money to buy ourselves some time to film for as long as we possibly could. There was always room to change things so that we could react to things that were happening politically, as well as things that were happening on set.

LF: One of the most striking tone shifts in the film happens when we get to spend an extended amount of time with Andreia as she goes from work to church and to her canvassing and rallies as Sol Nascente’s District Deputy candidate for the Prison People Party. In this section, you and Adirley offer a greatly contrasting trajectory for Andreia. After her time as a gasolinheira, Andreia expands her focus of impact beyond her immediate crew and seeks reform at a community wide level. The gasolinheira life was highly reactive, whereas Andreia’s following chapter is more proactive. Was this contrast something you intended from the beginning, or was it something that came out of editing with Cristina Amaral or Léa’s expanded role in the film?

JP: I think that more than anything, at this point, we were reacting to this idea of incarceration as a public policy. We were filming in a place where 90% of the population had either been to prison or had a direct family member in prison. In fact, everyone in our cast has either spent time in prison or has a mother, father, or son who is incarcerated right now who they usually visit every two weeks. When we started filming, two major things happened: First, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, our former President, went to prison, and at the same time, political campaigning was happening in the streets because of upcoming elections. And so, we got together with Andreia, who was always going to bring politics in a direct way into the film, although we weren’t initially certain on how we were going to make that happen, but as soon as both of these aforementioned events occurred, we decided to make a political party that dealt with incarcerated people because they are the people who live in Sol Nascente, and because we work with non-professional actors, we made everything happen in this very concrete way.

We registered Andreia and the party for the campaign, and we opened up political headquarters on the main street of Sol Nascente. Unfortunately, none of this made it into the final cut because we were filming for eighteen months and most of what we shot didn’t make it into the film, but we did create a real campaign. We went door-to-door, we went canvassing, we created a jingle together, but most of all, we wanted Andreia to get elected for real! Since there were 16,000 prisoners awaiting trial who still had their voting rights and we needed 20,000 votes to get elected, we worked on organizing these inmates to vote, and if we could also get these inmates’ families to vote as well, then we could get Andreia elected for District Deputy.

When we started putting the campaign into motion, Andreia’s election, for her and for us, became a real possibility. This was important because we were living in a place where there is a programmatic incarceration of people who are black, poor, and coming from poor districts, and so, to a certain extent, there is a belief that every prisoner in Brazil is a political prisoner. At a time when all of this attention was directed at Lula being a political prisoner, we wanted to create a clear statement with Andreia’s campaign: if one part of our population is imprisoned systematically, then that part is consistently robbed of their right to vote and in turn are political prisoners too. Thus, our party was going to fight for prisoners’ rights from this standpoint.

The importance of the party’s focus became even clearer when Léa was arrested for a second time. Adirley and I actually went to speak at her trial as character witnesses, and we attempted to convince this judge that Léa has a job and a contract in our film, and although the system makes it sound like prison is an opportunity to retrain these prisoners to re-enter society, we had someone in Léa who already had been re-integrated. We asked the judge, “Wouldn’t this be a case for you to not put her back in jail?” But, the judge told us that Léa’s past had condemned her, and that meant to us that Léa went back to jail based on this public policy of systematically incarcerating people.

GF: Given that we are speaking about Andreia’s role in the film, we must ask: what is faith to her? We wanted to discuss this because the scene in the church is fascinating, as there’s so much at play there: the streets flooding outside, the other attendees in the periphery, Andreia’s countenance. We can sense the surrounding instability and the seeking of hope and redemption all in this sequence, yet there’s a lot that feels left unseen and unexplained. How important was this balance between the seen and unseen in constructing Andreia’s church attendance?

JP: That is a good question, as I feel that so many people react violently to that church scene because they feel that it shouldn’t be part of the film. Sometimes, I feel that many progressive people have difficulty in understanding other people’s religions. We ended up having to fight to keep that scene in the film—every filmmaker who saw the final cut wanted us to remove that moment, but we felt that it was crucial to the film because Andreia, Léa, and Chitara are Evangelicals.

There is an Evangelical church on almost every single corner in Sol Nascente, so we knew that we had to address faith. Also, Lula almost didn’t get elected as President this past week because the Workers Party still refuses to acknowledge the importance of Evangelicals in Brazil. It is almost like the people on the political left don’t even know how to start engaging with the Evangelical communities, so they pretend that they don’t exist. At the same time, I am not defending the Evangelical Church as an institution. I myself am not an Evangelical, and I am completely aware of everything that they do that is problematic, but within the context of this community, they fulfill a super important role.

It is impossible to go to an Evangelical church, especially with people you know, and not get very moved. These are people who are humiliated in their jobs, and they spend three hours a day commuting to Brasilia to do menial work, and so when I received this question about the church scene at a film festival here in the States, I explained that, in the US, many people have the need and means to see therapists or psychoanalysts, and I don’t see that practice as being radically different from going to an Evangelical Church where you give your testimony. All of a sudden, for half an hour, there are up to a hundred people who will stop and listen to you and hear about anything that you have done, and it is all understood by this group of people. Adirley and I discussed this a lot because every time people film at an Evangelical church in Brazil, they film outside and don’t go in, and thus they make the parishioners seem like caricatures. But in a space like Sol Nascente in Brazil, the Evangelicals occupy a very important function, so it was essential that we showed the interiors of the church.

As for the flooding outside, when we made the decision to film inside, we filmed over many days, and one day, it rained a great deal, and because of the poor infrastructure, the rain came cascading down the street, and the scene became almost Biblical. We also made the decision to shoot everything from the pews, and we removed the preacher from the scene because we just wanted to see parishioners singing and communicating. We just found the whole scene so beautiful, watching them sing with such passion and sincerity. It was very moving for us, and so we wanted the church to become more about what it meant to the actors, and less about how the church has been viewed politically. I’m glad that you both found that moment important because it was so very important for us too!

LF: While watching your film, we felt this instinctive link to Antonioni’s Red Desert. The dependence on fuel and chemical refinement is certainly a part of it, but, more importantly, both films express a dystopian future set in a contemporary space. Antonioni hints at the future through the distinctive experimental score by Giovanni Fusco so that you see the present, but imagine the future through sound. What elements in Dry Ground Burning were the most significant to you in establishing this convergence of the future and the now?

JP: Oil, for us, was a mark of the past and of the history we wanted to mobilize. In Brazil, oil is nationalized, and at the end of the Lula government, a law was created that said that 75% of the royalties from oil had to go to culture, education, and health. So, for a little bit, there was almost the promise of a complete revolution in Brazil because the government was injecting so many billions into key areas that needed help. Then, there was a coup that took President Dilma from power, and then the Temer government and the Bolsonaro governments sold off the oil fields to multinational companies for the price of bananas. So, today, Brazil has not retained much of its oil rights after these two administrations. Basically, the oil that is in our film is the opposite of what you are saying — it is the elegiac mark to the past and to what could’ve been.

When we decided to take ownership of the oil and approach it from a popular narrative, we began to think about what it could mean if the oil belonged to the people. In turn, I think that there were two aspects that looked towards the future for us. First is the militia car. We started thinking about surveillance, and we had this image of how the police always operated in the district by only seeing citizens from inside of their vehicle or through cameras, so we came to the conclusion that if you only see people through these methods, then it is impossible for you to see them as anything but monsters. To explore this idea, we asked our friends, who are also members from the Movement Without Land, to portray these militia members in the vehicle. They played the opposite of what they do in their daily lives! For their motivation, we told them to imagine that they have not left this car for the last ten years and that they were lost inside of it while observing the city. Then, this officially became the future forward element for us when we eventually disassembled the car and burned it in the end.

You wouldn’t know this from watching the film, but this car was only one of five that was made in Brazil during the end of the dictatorship. It was supposed to represent the promise of a new Brazilian car manufacturing industry, and now this car has become an icon of the extreme right. We acquired the car from an old man in São Paulo who refused to sell it to our art director because she was a woman, which meant that we had to get a man to buy the car. Thankfully, our metal worker, who is also an actor in the film, picked it up, but the old man made him promise to take good care of it. We did burn it, of course, but because the car was so expensive, we stripped it for the parts first and then burned only the frame.

The second piece of looking forward is the last shot of the film that has Léa riding on the motorcycle with all of the other drivers behind her. The song that plays is a song that Léa used to listen to all the time while we were shooting, but neither Adirley nor I knew what it was. At some point, we gave up on guessing, and we just asked her what she was listening to, and then, we contacted the rapper who wrote the song back in the 1990s, and we got it to use in the film. The reason why that is future-looking for me is because it reveals where the film stands at the end in a more straightforward way.

The film could have ended with Léa going to jail. Then, it wouldn’t have been two-and-a-half hours, and instead, it would’ve been more like an hour and fifty minutes, which would’ve made it easier to distribute. It was also a naturally clear ending because we knew that it would be hard to come back from Léa going to jail again. It’s a tough watch because that became such a major closing point to all of this, but we made a deal with the actors: they were not going to lose. They had to take over the streets and become the queens of the neighborhood! So, when we go to the burning of the car and the end with Léa becoming a legend, parading across the city, we felt that the film points to a possible positive future. I mean, for me, if there is any hope for Brazil, it is in them to an extent because their strength, curiosity, and generosity makes me personally want to carry on and make this kind of work. So, for me, it is these two things that direct the film towards the future.

GF: Early in Dry Ground Burning, when Léa gets her shotgun back from her brother, you evoke motifs of the western genre (i.e. gunslinger getting out of jail and receiving his gun back), and as a result, you show a future that has regressed quite far back into the past. In light of the election on Monday where voters brought Lula back, did you have a sense that, politically, people would be looking to the past in response to Bolsonaro too?

JP: I guess that was the hope. Because there is no movie theater in Ceilândia, we kind of have to work with the actors with references that we can share, which are mostly from the late night films that our actors watched on television, usually westerns, kung fu films and classic Hollywood movies. When they were all growing up, there actually was this single cinema in Ceilândia that had one show a day called Sex Karate! That meant a double feature of a porno film and a kung fu film, and so it was in this kind of cinemagraphic space that we tried to collaborate. Obviously, the western became more useful here in terms of the aesthetics that we were trying to propose in terms of scale. We wanted wide shots to be super wide, and we wanted close-ups to be quite close, so we were thinking about an elasticity of scale that would allow us to work with bodies and landscapes in a way that Adirley and I were interested in while also allowing us to mobilize archetypes and the idea of what constitutes a legend in a way that we can all watch, discuss, and think about together. That is how these references to genre, and particularly westerns, came into the project.

As far as the past, I think that what makes me sad is that we, as the left, have lost this narrative battle. The only person who could win an election from Bolsonaro was Lula, and he barely made it! We haven’t in all these years been able to build and rethink what it means to do politics, and I think this is somewhat similar to what’s going on in the US too. It’s almost like we are barely coming to terms with the ascendants of the right, when they are the ones reinventing narrative, reinventing language, reinventing how you make political campaigns. The motorcycle drivers, truck drivers, and the delivery people are a good example of this. They are a huge force in Brazil, and Bolsonaro cleverly assembled them for his campaign, which means that the far right is still winning the political mobilizations, especially these large groups that constitute the majority beyond the city centers, but we, the left, are still under the impression that a voter in Rio or São Paulo is more important than a voter in Ceilândia when they all count the same! We have not been able to motivate the voters or form a political campaign in places outside of Rio and São Paulo that speaks to people who are Evangelical or who are without a job, and that means we are still shying away from going to the heart of how that could translate into a political form that could serve us all.

That said, the one person who has achieved that in the most brilliant and wonderful way is Lula because he loves people. I think that he has done the right things, such as rebuilding the northeast. So, looking to the past is more of a sign of our failure in progressive politics to rethink who are the people we should be campaigning with or doing things for right now. In Brazil, voting is mandatory, and yet, here we are still campaigning towards the politics of the center when that doesn’t represent the majority of the electorate.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Featured photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

Dry Ground Burning

Miryam Charles


Originally published on Ink 19 on November 16, 2022
Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso

There are many aspects of this year’s AFI Fest lineup that warrant special distinction. In the eight years that we have covered the event, the programming team has consistently expanded on their commitment to discovering and showcasing emerging talents, with this year’s selections going far beyond previous iterations in terms of their international outreach. AFI Fest 2022 also curated an astonishing amount of documentary features that applied experimental methods in order to distinctly tell their narratives while simultaneously expanding the genre.

Amongst our favorite features this year at AFI Fest were a trio of innovative documentaries that used a plethora of unorthodox techniques to delve into their subjects and topics: Alain Gomis’s Rewind and Play, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica, and Miryam Charles’s Cette Maison.

Throughout her early career, Miryam Charles, a Canadian-born filmmaker of Haitian descent, has explored a myriad of issues related to trauma and displacement in her short film work, and now, with her compelling debut hybrid-documentary feature, Cette Maison, Charles examines how the tragic death of her cousin Terra, who died in 2008 under mysterious, violent circumstances at the age of fourteen while living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, impacted her and her extended family. Charles’s film is not concerned with any investigation into the causality of Terra’s death and instead opts for an approach that imagines Terra living in an adult state, which plays out in Cette Maison through a formal staging with actors assuming the roles of Terra and her family. These dramaturgic moments are combined with traditional documentary-like footage and over narration that freeze and shift time to add focus and distance to mirror the emotions behind Terra’s death and the Charles family’s concept of home.

We spoke at length with Charles at AFI Fest on the morning of the screening of Cette Maison and discussed how her short films equipped her to tell such a personal story, her philosophy regarding the use of fictive and documentary elements, her approach to recording the film’s over narration, and how Charles’s family’s immigration to Canada from Haiti affected her life and the construction of her film.

• •

LF: Throughout your short film work, you’ve explored trauma in multiple situations. Given that your cousin’s death occurred when you were a young woman, how important was it for you to explore these outside traumas in your previous works before confronting the loss of your cousin more directly in Cette Maison?

MC: I think that I was actually preparing myself in a way, not consciously, to work on Cette Maison, because, as you said, all of my earlier films do address trauma, and so I think I was creating these films to work up the courage to take on this project and confront the death of my cousin. For years, my family and I were in a bit of denial about what happened, so we tried not to talk about it. But young women were normally at the center of my short films, and they were always trying to overcome trauma and get answers and find the truth, so in creating these works, I was eventually better prepared to make Cette Maison.

GF: Your short films are also highly experimental in nature and consistently blend documentary-like footage with fictional elements. In Cette Maison, you distinctively heighten fictional and nonfictional parts with the black-box theater staging of certain scenes and dialogs. How did you decide which moments would be shot and presented in this staged form?

MC: From the beginning, when I was writing the script, I knew that a scene like the one at the morgue was such a strange and traumatic moment in real life that I decided that I was going to leave that space almost blank and add elements of set design to accentuate the sense of loss we all felt at that time. Also, since I went into this knowing that I wasn’t going to make a traditional documentary, I met with family members to talk about my cousin, her life, and certain memories. When I went to Connecticut to do interviews, I wanted to also film some scenes using my cousin’s mother’s real-life, beautiful garden, but I realized it would be too emotionally difficult, so as a means to protect myself, I made the decision to recreate that garden in the studio to retain that connection to flowers and plants as an homage to my family because they are very much in tune with nature.

LF: Could you talk about your approach and methods for recording and processing the narration? The volume, the cadence, the distance, and the slight distortion add so much additional depth to the images of the film.

MC: I wrote the script, and then I spent a few weeks with the two actresses who narrated the film. We took that time to discuss the text, to which they added elements of themselves, and then we went into the studio together, drank tea, and talked about life in a very calm, loving, and relaxing way. Thanks to this process, the actresses understood from the very beginning that this was a very emotional story, and it all went well. I then did the recording with the two actresses together. The producers had asked me if I wanted to record them separately, but given that we were doing the three voices of the film, I very much wanted to record our voices together.

GF: Some of the most beautiful images of Cette Maison come from your exploration of what returning to Haiti would look like for your cousin had she lived. What was it like to go back to Haiti to try to capture the sense of place through the imagined perspective of your cousin rather than that of your own?

MC: Actually, when I started to work on the film, it was very important for me to go back to Haiti to shoot the film there because I am of Haitian descent, and my cousin never got the chance to return before she passed. It was a very symbolic moment for us to go back there together, but in the end, we didn’t. When we started shooting, it was the beginning of the pandemic, and the situation in Haiti was somewhat difficult, so the insurance company would not insure us to film there. I was very saddened by this, so the producer asked me if I wanted to wait a year and a half to shoot the film, and we decided to wait. Unfortunately, then, there was the situation involving the President of Haiti, and the insurance company again said that they could not insure us, so instead of waiting longer, which I didn’t want to do as I had an emotional need to get this going, we chose to film in St. Lucia and the Dominican Republic. I then altered the script so that when the characters talk about returning home and they look at the map, they are unsure of where they are, which was a way for me to suggest that they weren’t really there at all. This added to the nostalgia of the film because I myself had never been to St. Lucia or the Dominican Republic, so all of the images that I shot were from a distance—just landscapes and not a lot of people. Those images created a feeling of wandering and trying to find a home while knowing that home is not there.

LF: That feeling of not knowing where home is greatly resonated with me and Generoso because of our own familial histories. Your parents departed during the regimes of the Duvaliers in Haiti, but there’s no explicit mention of the political state of Haiti in Cette Maison. Was the impact of the Duvalier family’s government something that subconsciously impacted your family? Did it make you feel more distant from Haiti?

MC: I would say that this exclusion is really coming from what I experienced in my family, and I also have a lot of friends whose families left Haiti during the regimes too and had similar experiences. In my home, my parents wanted to distance themselves from what they fled, and they expressed that through their hopes for us to be integrated into Canada. They really wanted us to be Canadians, and they made sure that we learned French before we learned Creole. That, of course, created some distance between me and the homeland of my parents. I was in my late teens when I finally learned Creole, and, if you know the language, I think that you can hear that in the film because when I narrate in Cette Maison, I do it in a very thick French accent. It always bothered me in a way because, given the history of Haiti and its colonization by France, speaking Creole with a French accent is very difficult and loaded for me. But, I decided not to correct it in the film because this nuance tells the story of displacement and the story of how I learned about my family’s culture at home.

GF: Feeding off of this idea of immigrant upbringing, we wondered about the selection of music in your film. Assimilation for immigrant families is always inconsistent, and each family has their own way to preserve culture from their homelands and to accept outsider culture too. How did your music selections for Cette Maison reflect your family’s approach to assimilation?

MC: Very early in the process, I was telling my cousin’s story, but I was also telling my own story, and I wanted to stay close to home. My parents were classical music lovers, so that’s what we listened to in our home, not the more traditional Haitian music genres such as kompa or zouk. When I met with the film’s composer and he suggested a score that was more Caribbean, I told him that I just didn’t grow up with that kind of music, so we filled the score with classical music as an homage dedicated mostly to my dad instead.

LF: For us, the use of classical music in the film also created its own sort of timespace. Nothing feels dated, but also nothing feels explicitly now either. As a result, the film exists in its own independent timespace that is non-linear and separate from our current reality. Can you talk a bit about the creation of this unique and distinct area?

MC: Cette Maison is a film about memory, trauma, and trying to deconstruct or reconstruct souvenirs, and grief distorts time in this process. When you lose someone, it is difficult to attach that moment to an exact time, even when you know what year it occurred. My cousin’s death happened fourteen years ago, but it feels simultaneously so close and yet so far away. Grief does such strange things with time…

GF: Now that you have created Cette Maison, which is such a personal and emotional story, have you begun thinking about your next project and whether that will be a personal story as well?

MC: Yes, I think that my project will be personal, and it will be a comedy about a Haitian family living in Montreal. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Featured photo by Claudie-Ann Landry.

Cette Maison

Flaming Ears


Originally published on Ink 19 on November 14, 2022

Flaming Ears
directed by Angela Hans Scheirl, Ursula Pürrer, and Dietmar Schipek

Growing out of the economic growth and public acceptance of new technologies that also coincided with a homogenization of sexuality in response to HIV in the 1980s was a tangible threat to the way of life for the nocturnal denizens of forgotten urban pockets — pockets that had once been abandoned by upright citizens who, in years past, had only viewed the city as a center of commerce. Neighborhoods that once basked in subversive underground decadence and thriving artistic movements were steadily overthrown by entrepreneurs and speculators who, at best, looked at these areas as a freakish novelty, and at worst, saw these areas solely as potential points of investment. These economic and moralistic metropolitan invasions were handled comically in mainstream films like Scorsese’s After Hours, but in independent, underground cinema, these impending menaces were confronted in the dour, micro-budget science fiction films of the era.

By 1991, when the Austrian filmmaking trio of Angela Hans Scheirl, Ursula Pürrer, and Dietmar Schipek had created their visionary super 8mm feature, Flaming Ears, there had been a quiet but significant infusion of small, vital sci-fi features worldwide ranging from Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky to Decoder by Muscha that envisioned a dystopian future where growing media influence, skewed carnality, and urban decay chaotically converged to freeze our connections to one another.

Flaming Ears is set over seven hundred years into the future during the Year of the Toads in the fictional industrial wasteland city of Asche, a non-utopian kind of refinery town or shipping port that no one wants to live in, but is still an essential place for the function it serves. In this barren landscape, we open on Spy (Susanna Heilmayr), who is sitting alone and illustrating the heavenly images she sees in the moonlit sky with paper and ink. Shrouded by the night, we then cut to the post-apocalyptically dressed and roller skate equipped Volley (co-director Ursula Pürrer), who descends in front of a stunning panorama of painted futuristic images before landing in a warehouse where she has a roll around between the endless rows of wooden cabinetry. Clearly not satisfied with just a skate, Volley proceeds to lubricate and hump a table before she gleefully sets fire to the room of old furniture that also houses Sky’s printing press and comix.

Alerted to the destruction of her press by Volley’s chauffeur, Magdalena (Margarete Neumann), who mocks Sky for her fantasy of a better world that she’s created in her comix, Sky heads out with revenge on her mind and gun in hand to The Tempest at Our Backs, a sex club where Volley is the star attraction. But, before Sky can dole out some payback, she is viciously beaten to a bloody pulp by the borderguard/bouncers. Now writhing in pain and left for dead, Sky is rescued by the stealthy and alienesque Nun (co-director Angela Hans Scheirl).

Clad in a club kid, red plastic spacesuit and possessing a penchant for devouring the reptiles from the plagues of Exodus, Nun initially fills the screen with a less impish Pris Stratton-replicant vibe, which transforms into a benevolent spirit when she secures the ailing, partially conscious Sky in her flat. In Sky, Nun feels a genuine link, but to nurture this bond, Nun must hide her from the claws of her wildly unpredictable lover, Volley, who visits Nun with flowers in hand only to berate her in the end. Volley is incensed by Nun’s lack of cleanliness, and in the course of her tirade, she is oblivious to Sky’s presence in the apartment. When things finally quiet down, Volley leaves a sleeping Nun to wreak further havoc on Asche, and Sky arises from her hiding place and flees. When Nun awakens, she returns to the streets and develops into a beatific, corrective force that challenges both the nihilistic and hedonistic elements of Asche, and through her actions, Nun becomes the precipitant to carry Volley and Sky away from the perpetual darkness that blankets them all.

Though set in the future, Flaming Ears is a film of broken connections and ubiquitous boundaries that feels eerily reminiscent of the mood of the AIDS epidemic during the early ’90s. Everything that transpires in Asche mirrors the cold distance that was the standard of that time, and if there is a single image from the film that epitomizes the period perfectly, then look no further than to that of the unused, flaccid wooden penis strapped to Volley during her masochistic performances, a symbol of deviation that carried with it no risk of rampant infection and no possibility of intimacy. As the panic around the virus grew in the ’90s and the cities were taken over by urban professionals, cultural endeavors were corrupted to become only commercial ventures, and anything that existed outside of the norm was driven to the fringes, making untamed expression into an act of rebellion.

Directors Scheirl, Pürrer, and Schipek offer Nun as the potential counterforce to these defacing changes. In her healing presence, Nun emerges as a reminder that the battle for the vibrancy of cities cannot be won by simply rejecting what’s normal and pivoting to the opposite, but rather by maintaining and supporting a place where identities across varying extremes can coexist, connect, and thrive. But sadly, when Flaming Ears was made, Nun was already a dying breed, and the decades that followed only led to her extinction, leaving us with the homogenized megalopolises of today.

The new 4k restoration of Flaming Ears opens on Thursday, November 17 at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and Friday, November 18 at Metrograph in New York before expanding to select cities.

Flaming Ears

Featured photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

Generoso and Lily Fierro